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january 2018

january 2018

I really liked Sleigh Bells first two records, but I only bought Bitter Rivals because it was on sale for $5, and that would have been too high a price to pay for their last album, 2016's Jessica Rabbit. Which is to say that I haven't bought a Sleigh Bells record that I actually liked in over five years.

I was intrigued by the first song they shared from their new EP, Kid Kruschev, a track called "And Saints". On that song, they veered away from the over-the-top jock rock that they had been steadily dumbing themselves down to. "And Saints" still has some of their signature sonic elements, but despite the pulsing synths, this is about as stripped down and emotionally bare as they've ever been. And it works for them, restoring some of the humanity to a sound that had gotten so bombastic that it was unlistenable.

Because of that, I decided to give Kid Kruschev a try, and man am I glad I did. There's only one song out of the seven that I don't like——"Favorite Transgressions" sounds too much like the version of the band I want to leave behind——and all the rest explore new instrumentation styles that leave ainger Alexis Krauss' vocals in the forefront where they have the most impact. It's their first record where both the lyrical themes and the music sound more mature——world weary, broken, and fighting to survive.

It brings a new urgency to their music that even the best tracks from their debut, Treats, don't achieve, and I'm excited to see if they'll continue to walk down these branching paths on their next release. If you've given up on this band, give this one a try. It brought me back into the fold, and if there's a chance you'll ever love this band again, this record is your best hope.

A couple of months, Belle & Sebastian announced that they would be releasing three EPs in a series called How to Solve our Human Problems (taking the same path to releasing what will essentially be a new album that the Pixies did with their reunion album, Indie Cindy——not a great precedent).

The first of these, How to Solve Our Human Problems, Pt. 1, came out in December, and it's...okay. I've given up hope that we'll ever get a truly great Belle & Sebastian album again, but I was hoping that by tackling this as a series of EPs, it might loosen them up a bit and rejuvenate their sound. This doesn't have the dance-orientation of their last proper album, but instead its more of the same watered-down late 50s/early 60s cliches that sound like they were writeen by the far less talented Stevie Jackson rather than frontman Stuart Murdoch.

These kinds of songs have unfortunatley become their stock in trade for most of thie century——2006's The Life Pursuit is the lone exceptional record since the band's heady early years. "We Were Beautiful" has grown on me a bit, and "The Girl Doesn't Get It" at least provides a jaunty change of pace. But the closing track is the worst of all——"Everything Is Now" (oddly close in title to Arcade Fire's most recent release, Everything Now) is the extended version of the theme song to a maudlin English working class drama that nobody wanted.

Mike Skinner officially retired the Streets back in early 2011, but here we are seven years later and they're showing signs of life. The haven't announced a new album, but they will be touring the UK soon, and they have shared two new songs, "Burn Bridges" and "Sometimes I Hate My Friends More Than My Enemies":

"Burn Bridges" is a spare, moody, smoldering track that wouldn't sound much like the Streets you might remember if not for Skinner's unmistakable delivery. "Sometimes I Hate My Friends More Than My Enemies" is a bit more interesting, but there's still an emptiness lurking at the core of the track that keeps me from really getting into it.

There will almost assuredly be a new full-length sometime this year, and if it all sounds like this, I don't think I'm going to be able to convince myself to buy it. There's always been the warmth of an honest, sincere humanity in all his previous releases, especially his masterpiece, A Grand Don't Come for Free. That's what's really appealing about Skinner's work, and without it, I'm not sure we're left with much else that's worth the effort it takes to really engage with music these days.

Titus Andronicus have announced a new album called A Productive Cough, and have shared a track from the record called "Number One (in New York)":

This is a sprawling, epic ballad, which might intitially seem like a poor fit for a punk band. But sprawling and epic are definitely words associated with some of this band's best work, and they really pull off the ballad part pretty well here, slowly building to a cathartic climax that gently deflates into a closing coda/denoument.

It's been a long time since I loved a whole Titus Andronicus album, but every release contains a few gems, and this is definitely a highlight. Excited to hear the rest of the record.

Jeff Rosenstock did a surprise album release on January 1 as a follow up to his amazing Worry. The new one is called POST-, and my favorite track so far is called "Yr Throat":

Worry is one of those once-in-a-lifetime records, so I didn't expect him to match it, but this is another great entry in what's turning into a truly extraordinary solo catalog. It's at least as good as Worry's predecessor, We Cool?, but it has added sophistication, weariness, and wisdoem that come from an extra few years of being an adult.

For incisive, political and yet deeply personal and melodic punk, there's no one who comes close to Rosenstock, and this record further cements his place as one of the genre's most important artists this decade.

Belle and Sebastian will release their second EP in the How to Solve Our Human Problems series in a couple of weeks, and they recently shared a track from that collection called "The Same Star":

This track features a female lead vocal, and it's very reminiscent of Stuart Murdoch's solo project God Help the Girl. There were a lot of Belle and Sebastian fans who didn't like that record, but I'm not one of them——in fact, I thinkn that's Murdoch's most coherent, listenable release since Belle and Sebastian's 2006 release, The Life Pursuit.

I get the feeling this track would have been streamlined and perfected further if not for the group effort involved with writing and recording a song in the context of a band rather than as a solo effort. But it's still a good track that I enjoy a lot more than the dancier material the band has been focused on for the past few years.

I'm guessing this batch of EPs is going to end up with about the same good song to very mediocre song as their last couple of albums——one or at most two tracks per five song EP being worth a place in the rotation——but "The Same Star" is a good start to the second entry in the series.

There has been quite a rash of pop punk bands fronted by female singers in the past few years——Hop Along, Bully, Sports, and the Courtneys are a few of the ones that come immediately to mind, but there are many others——and the newest one I've discovered is Diet Cig, a duo from NYC who've been playing together since 2014.

Their debut full-length is called Swear I'm Good At This, and although it was released last April, it only made its way onto my radar last month. It doesn't have any knockout singles, but neither does it have any real weak spots——every track is filled with hooks and at least one memorable vocal phrase or lyric, but they're different enough that they don't all bleed into each other in an indistinguishable mess when you listen to the album straight through.

I'm not as fond of the quieter numbers like "Apricots" and "Bath Bomb", but two of my favorites are the opener and the closer, "Sixteen" and "Tummy Ache". They both touch on the search for identity in very different ways: "Sixteen" recounts an early sexual experience with a male partner who shared the singer's first name (Alex): "It was weird/In the back of his truck/Moaning my own name/While trying to fuck". "Tummy Ache", on the other hand, explores the struggle of being a female artist in the traditionally male-dominated world of punk with an end-of-song refrain that could be a rallying cry for the punk sisterhood: "My stomach hurts/(Can you hear me?)/It's hard to be a punk while wearing a skirt".

They haven't gotten as much attention as Hop Along or Bully, but I like this record better than the most recent ones for those bands——it sounds like what I hoped Girlpool would have sounded like if you told me their sophomore album was going to be a lot louder and with a rhythm track. I'm excited to see what they do next——as good as this record is, there's still a huge ceiling for Diet Cig.

I knew that the new Pixies album, Head Carrier (their first full-length of new material that was conceived of and recorded as an album), was not worth owning, and I resisted purchasing it for a long time. But it came up as one of Amazon's monthly $5 digital albums, and I figured it had to be worth that price, right?

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. So wrong.

If I was being generous, I'd say that if it was a Frank Black solo album released in the late 90s, it would have been much better than the stuff from his Frank Black and the Catholics era, but that's damning with faint praise because that's a pretty low bar.

I'm not feeling particularly generous right now, so I'll say that other than providing more evidence that this band has nothing left of whatever it was that made them so amazing during their original incarnation. It's hard to point to any flaws in the construction of the songs, and there are a decent number of hooks, but it's missing whatever black magic made them feel so dangerous and vital.

"Bel Esprit" is a midtempo, upbeat number that wouldn't have been out of place on Bossa Nova (which is good, but widely regarded as the worst of the original Pixies albums), and "Plaster of Paris" is catchy but sounds like it could have come from a Reivers-era Austin band that looking for a mainstream breakthrough. But two oddly listenable singles (that don't really sound anything like the Pixies) do not an album make.

Another record that I got for $5 from Amazon recently was the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bullocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, a record that I've suprisingly never owned myself. One of my roommates in high school played it and The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle constantly. So while I was at one time familiar with it, I haven't really listened to it in at least a couple of decades, and that $5 entry point seemed like a good excuse to get reacquainted with it.

Decades after the UK punk movement, the Sex Pistols are more noted for kickstarting the movement that paved the way for more complex and accomplished bands like the Clash, Joy Division, Wire, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Gang of Four. No one really talks about their music (which is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that the band only released one official studio album before imploding)——their influence is what remember as important about them.

But you should take a listen to this record if you haven't heard it in a while, or if you've never heard it at all. It's aged remarkably well, and the songs have that combination of raw energy and strong hooks that make the best punk albums so compulsively listenable.

If some of it doesn't sound as original as it did back in the day, that's because every song on here served as a blueprint that this been endlessly reconstructed since this album was released——even if you've never heard these songs themselves, you've likely heard them dozens of times through their appropriation by other artists. Which makes tracks like "Holiday in the Sun" and "Anarchy in the U.K." all that more remarkable: no one has managed to improve upon them yet.

Now that we've had another forty years of people experimenting with this raw formula and making more overt connections between punk and the original rock and roll from the 50s. Those ties are much more apparent now than they were when this record was new, but if anything, that just makes its place in the rock pantheon more solid. It's an album that takes something old and sells it something as completely new, a hard trick to pull off in any era.

When Scott Miller, the frontman for Game Theory and Loud Family, committed suicide in 2013, he was in the midst of writing and recording a new Game Theory album, which would have been the first record from that group since 1988's Two Steps from the Middle Ages. His death was a blow to me and to so many others——his was a unique voice in outside-the-mainstream pop music, stuffed with hooks, complex, witty lyrics, and a genuine sincerity that came through in Scott's fragile vocals that always felt like they were on the verge of going off key (he once described it as a "miserable whine").

Rather than let that work stay buried forever or be released in an incomplete, unfinished form, several of Miller's friends, with the permission of his wife, took those recordings and fleshed them out, adding instrumentation to Miller's vocal demos or adding their own voices to instrumentals that Miller was working on. The result was released last year as Supercalifragile, one of the strangest and most compelling posthumous works that has ever been released.

Miller didn't have just any friends. In addition to his former Game Theory and Loud Family bandmates, the project includes substantial contributions from artists like Aimee Mann, Will Sheff (of Okkervil River), Ted Leo, and Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow (both of the Posies and then later the reconstituted Big Star).

There are several songs that feature Miller himself on vocals, and because of his unique vocal style, those are the ones that sound the most like Game Theory. The best of these are "Laurel Canyon", "No Love", and the wonderfully ramshackle "Time Warner"——any of these could have been outtakes from late 80s Game Theory.

There are also songs with guest vocalists that sound very much like Game Theory muscially, and those include "Say Goodbye" and "Valerie Tomorrow". Beyond these tracks, there are a lot of near-misses——songs that Scott would have continued to refine, or songs that likely existed only as demos or sheet music that were recorded more in the style of the guest artist than of Game Theory.

We may never know what drove Miller to kill himself——his biographer declined to go into details on either the how or the why in Don't Thank Me All at Once, published two years after Miller's death——but it's a shame he couldn't stick around to finish Supercalifragile himself. As much as I appreciate having this tribute to Miller's work and life, there are so many moments when you can hear what the song could have become in Miller's hands, and that makes the pain of his death that much more acute for those of us who loved his music and his intellect.

The Breeders have shared a teaser video for their upcoming album All Nerve, their first album in 10 years and the first to feature the lineup the created their best record, 1993's Last Splash, since that album:

You can't really make a fair assessment of a record based on 15 second excerpts from a couple of tracks, but these clips absolutely make me excited for what this album could be, especially given that I've been a little disappointed with the two records Kim Deal has released under the Breeders name this century.

Two weeks ago I had never heard of Sidney Gish, but now I'm obsessed with her, specifically her sophomore album No Dogs Allowed. There's not a song on the record that I don't love, but I don't really know how to describe her in a way that would make you want to listen to her. This record has a very self-recorded with Pro Tools bedroom feel, but there's a very organic playfulness that makes even the machine elements feel like quirky, ramshackle elements.

She focuses on guitars——acoustic and effect-less electric——and her songs are packed with hooks and melodies that are very pop-oriented but sometimes veer into jazz. They lyrics are simultaneously self-effacing and clever, wordy and simple, and her vocal phrasings are very hummable, and all of this mirrors the music itself——simple-sounding but deceptively complex.

There are moments where she can sound like Frankie Cosmos, and moments where she sounds like Girlpool, but really she just sounds like herself——this is one of those records that could have been released anytime in the past 20 years and it would sound as timeless and original as it does now. This record was technically released on the last day of 2017, but I can assure you already that it's going to end up on my best-of list for 2018.

I recently picked up Special Explosions' debut album, To Infinity, and while I'm still feeling my way around its intricate structure and ornate decorative filigrees, I think it's going to continue to grow on me and get better the more I listen to it.

Special Explosions are from Seattle, and you can't escape their pacific northwest pedigree. There are moments that recall every major indie rock outfit from the region over the past 20 years, from Modest Mouse and Built to Spill to the Shins and Band of Horses. But they most often sound like Death Cab for Cutie from the late 90s, both because of singer Andy Costello's vocal similarities to Ben Gibbard and the spare, simple production that helps cut the sometimes overly rich array of backing instruments and multitracked vocals.

Even though it's hard not to hear the ghosts of these other bands pushing their way into these songs, the band still manages to create something original and unique, something that is more than the sum of their sonic references to their geographic forefathers. It's hard to imagine this record existing without all that came before it, but at the same time, I can guarantee you've never heard song like the quirky, ambling "Gladiator" or the charming "Your Bed" from their Seattle-area brethren.

There are times when the stately pace and longer track times make my short attention span self a little impatient, but I keep coming back to the album anyway. This is an attention-getting debut that creates its own little universe to inhabit, and I'm curious to see what worlds we'll get to explore with them on their next record.

Frank Cosmos have announced a new album called Vessel and shared a track from the record called "Jesse":

I fell hard for Greta Kline and company's last record, Next Thing, especially the tracks "On the Lips" and especially "Embody". Their charmingly lo-fi approach to guitar pop isn't new, but they do it pretty well, and "Jesse" is more of the same.

What can you say about the Go Team at this point in their career? They've carved out a very unique spot in the musical landscape, layering old-school soul samples with a foundation of analog beats and mixing in cheerleader chants or dreamy, girl group inspired vocals. They are what they are, and while each album might focus on a slightly different sonic exploration, they are remarkable consistent.

The recently released Semicircle is another solid entry in the catalog, and "Semicircle Song", "Plans Are Like a Dream U Organise", and "Chain Link Fence" are highlights that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the group's best work. Definitely worth a listen if you haven't heard this band before, but if you've already made up your mind about their music one way or the other, this record won't do anything to change your opinion.

Last Friday I checked a box on my music bucket list that should have been taken care of a long time ago: I finally saw a show at the legendary 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA (I've been living in Atlanta for nearly six years now, so I really haven't had an excuse for not getting to this earlier).

The headliner was Camper Van Beethoven, who have put out a couple of surprisingly decent records in the past few years, but they were preceded by two all-star openers: locals Elf Power (who were part of the 60s-inspired Elephant 6 Collective that included bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo, and an of Montreal band that was still finding its voice) and one of my all-time favorites, Robyn Hitchcock.

The Elf Power set was decent, but I only own a couple of their records and up until I revisited them in preparation for this show, I probably hadn't listened to thim in at least 15 years. It was pleasant, and I enjoyed it, but I really couldn't wait to get to Hitchcock's turn.

He played a great set that included a bunch of songs from the late 90s, the era when Camper Van was a major player on the college scene and likely when he became friends with them (he was also going through a major label backed dalliance with the mainstream at the time). Here's the setlist:

    1. My Wife and My Dead Wife
    2. The Devil's Coachman
    3. N.Y. Doll
    4. Wax Doll
    5. Surgery
    6. I Want to Tell You About What I Want
    7. Madonna of the Wasps
    8. I Wanna Destroy You
    9. Mad Shelley's Letterbox

He played the first three songs solo on electric guitar, and then was joined by Elf Power as his backing band for the remainder of the set. The highlights were "My Wife and My Dead Wife" (it was incredible watching the laughter erupt from people who didn't know the song as the story unfolded——there are some great surprise lines in there) and "Madonna of the Wasps", which has always been one of my favorite tracks (for a high school theater project where a collective of us wrote and performed a series of short plays, we all wore white t-shirts on which we'd written phrases that were important to us, and one of mine was a lyric from this song).

The set was far too short——he could have played for hours and I would have never lost interest. But I would get a chance to spend more time with him later in the evening...

While chatting with some other crowd members in between the opening sets at the Camper Van Beethoven concert, I discovered a fascinating fact that I had zero clue about previously: frontman David Lowery has a fanatical following in all his incarnations——Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker, and Monks of Doom. The show we saw was actually the middle show in a three night stand where one of each of these bands was the headliner, and most of the people in the audience with us had a laminated pass that gave them access to all three shows. I would have never guessed.

I also found out he's a professor at UGA. Which is weird.

Anyway. I saw Camper Van a lot back in their Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie days, right before Lowery broke up the band because he wanted to move to Virginia from California to be with a girlfriend and the rest of the band wouldn't go with him (which is what led him to form Cracker in Richmond with guitarist Johnny Hickman). I was hoping the setlist would include a lot of songs from that era, but I was pretty disappointed. Here's what they played:

    1. ZZ Top Goes to Egypt
    2. Flowers
    3. Too High for the Love-In
    4. Waka
    5. Turquoise Jewelry
    6. Pictures of Matchstick Men
    7. Cattle (Reversed)
    8. The History of Utah
    9. S.P. 37957 Medley
    10. Stairway to Heavan (sic)
    11. Come Down the Coast
    12. Take the Skinheads Bowling
    13. Seven Languages
    14. The Poppies of Balmorhea
    15. Northern California Girls
    16. Good Guys and Bad Guys
    17. Mao Reminisces About His Days In Southern China
    18. Summer Days

    19. The Day That Lassie Went to the Moon
    20. Club Med Sucks

"Flowers" is the only song in that entire list that I love, and as you can see, it came pretty early. I really started to lose interest around "S.P. 37957 Medley", which is a long-ass instrumental version of "Hava Nagila", so I wandered back towards the merch area to see about a Robyn Hitchcock poster or shirt. And lo and behold, Hitchcock himself was hanging out at the merch table chatting with local man-about-town Mike Mills from R.E.M.

As much as I would have loved to, I didn't want to interrupt their conversation, so I waited until Mills wandered away and then went up to look at Hitchcock's merch. I ended up chatting with him for a few minutes about the time he played Raleigh, NC in a converted theater across the street from my grandmother's Baptist church. It was my first time seeing him in concert, but he had to cancel the show because of a throat infection.

He came out and played three or four acoustic songs for us anyway, and then he and his special guest Peter Buck (also of R.E.M.) signed autographs for everyone in the lobby (I still have a ticket stub with Hitchcock's signature and a receipt from Poindexter Records with Buck's signature, the receipt being the only other piece of paper I had on me besides the ticket stub). Hitchcock said he remembered that evening, and then told me about his trip down from Nashville (where he currently resides) before I got him to sign a poster for me.

Even though I was less than enthused about the Camper Van set, it was a great night overall, and it was good to finally get a 40 Watt show under my belt.

Tune-Yards have a new record called I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, and although I've given it a few listens, I just don't feel like I need to write too much about it. It's only okay, which is a disappointment from a band that once seemed to have so much potential.

This is only their second album since their breakthrough 2011 release Whokill, which was brimming with ideas and off-kilter hooks. It felt about as original as it's possible to get in the modern era, and it was compulsively listenable.

By contrast, both Private Life and its predecessor, Nikki Nack, having fallen alarmingly short on both fronts. Aside from the genuinely great "Water Fountain", neither album has a song that made it into my heavy rotation shuffle playlist, and I'm unlikely to revisit either in the future.

2017 was an odd year for of Montreal——it was the first time since 2011 that they didn't release a full-length record (although they did release an EP of new material). They're back in 2018, however——they've announced a new album called White is Relic/Irrealis Mood and shared a track from the record called "Paranoiac Intervals/Body Dysmorphia":

I haven't been thrilled by an of Montreal release since way back in 2008 when they gave us Skeletal Lamping. There have been a few records since then that have intriguing moments or songs on them——Paralytic Stalks, Aureate Gloom, and Innocence Reaches fall into that category——but nothing that sustained greatness for a whole album.

I'm getting a little excited for this record though——based on this track (tracks?——this is clearly two songs merged together), Kevin Barnes seems to be moving away from recording with a band to recording all the instruments himself, relying heavily on synths and drum machines. This is the same approach that produced his greatest works (the string of releases from Hissing Fauna to Skeletal Lamping, including the Icons, Abstract Thee EP), and his return to a dense interior headspace gives me some hope for this record.

The first part of this split song is a dance-oriented track whose centerpoint is a chorus that repeats "You should be fucking with no one else). About four and a half minutes in, the pace slows and a droning chant provides the bridge to the moodier "Body Dysmorphia" section. It reminds me of the sudden shifts we'd get on Skeletal Lamping on tracks like "Beware Our Nubile Miscreants" and "Wicked Wisdom".

Anyway. To been seen whether the whole album is as good as this——I've been fooled before by a strong prelease single or two from this band.

The Decemberists have announced a new album called I'll Be Your Girl and shared a track called "Severed":

The synth line that opens the song (and repeats throughout), the big guitar flourishes, and the chugging rhythm all speak to the 80s in a way that I can't otherwise define, and this sound is definitely a bit of a departure from the band. But if you stripped all that away, underneath you have a fairly typical Decemberists song——not bad, but not great. Which is pretty par for the course for their last couple of records.

I'll still buy this, and I'll definitely still go see them on the inevitable tour, because I'm a big fan and they've never put out a really bad album. But I won't be surprised if this is similar in quality to their last release, 2015's What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World——a couple of great songs, a bunch of average (for the Decemberists) songs, and a couple of throwaways.