A new single by Black Belt Eagle Scout is reason to celebrate. “Loss & Relax” and “Half Colored Hair” continue the vibe from “Mother of My Children,” thoughtful, full of invention, colored both by joy and a sense of mourning. If I remember correctly, Katherine Paul played “Loss & Relax” during the band’s stop in Tacoma, and she really ripped into it, with the whole band jamming out on the ending of the song. Paul writes fascinating and beautiful guitar lines for her songs, and you can hear in “Loss & Relax” how easily she moves from a meditative/contemplative mode into explosive, ecstatic emotion. She has a great note up on the band’s bandcamp page about what inspired “Loss & Relax” and what she was thinking about when the song came into being, and you should real all of it, but here’s an excerpt:
“As I was writing the guitar line, I kept seeing the water of the Salish Sea and the local ferries drifting people in and out of place. Ferries are such a beautiful part of my childhood and served as a major form of transportation. Thinking about my home and how canoes have turned into ferries is a sad but also beautiful thought. Nowadays with Canoe Journeys, canoes are alongside ferries, roaming our waters to lands, sharing customs and culture. That is what I think about now, when I listen to the fully recorded version of the song. I see a strong and fierce community of my people, continuing to thrive in whatever comes our way. That is how I feel about myself, a survivor and thriver of this land, a water protector, a womxn, the future.”
“Half Colored Hair” is another gorgeous love song from Paul (like “Soft Stud”), a sketch of sweet intimacy, caring touches, moments of realization. She sings, towards the end of the song, “I never knew I’d like/half colored hair so much/But I knew/I’d like you/So I didn’t care/’Cause I care for you.”
Kara-Lis Coverdale’s beautiful “Grafts” starts with sounds that are like soft things falling a long way. Phased organ exhalations. Instruments suspiring in cushy environs, reacting to each other, provoking further action. But that’s not the whole story. It’s a protean piece, all 20+ minutes keep moving, dancing off-balance—later in the piece, notes from a piano flutter in a stiff wind. Still later: prepared pitter patter and steam releases. Coverdale shares sound space with folks like Ellen Arkbro and Nils Frahm, composers who like to experiment with soundcraft and form. “Grafts” is incredible, can’t recommend this one highly enough.
Wolf Parade played in Tacoma at the end of February, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I hadn’t seen them live since 2005, when my brother and I saw them in Philly at the Khyber, right after Dante DeCaro had joined the band (who played as Johnny and the Moon to open the show, followed by Think About Life) and they’d been on tour for “Apologies to the Queen Mary” for a little while already. That was an incredible show, one of my favorites ever, probably. They played so well and intensely that night, not only the songs from the album, but also stuff that never got the studio treatment, like the incredible “Things I Don’t Know.”
So 14 years later, everyone’s older, and Dante’s left the band. I’d gathered from recent social media updates that the band had been holed up recently recording the follow-up to “Cry, Cry, Cry,” so I was curious to hear what they’d play. The place was packed and the crowd greeted the band’s arrival on stage with a lot of supportive yelling and hospitable whistling/clapping. I can’t remember everything they played, but I think they started with Lazarus Online (or something from the last album) and then proceeded to rip through a bunch of older songs interspersed with brand new songs (all of which sounded awesome, especially the one that’s been tagged “Seattle”). It was crazy to see them play with the same kind of energy I’d witnessed the first time I saw them live, at a weird Believer magazine music showcase in New York (Dan played some theremin at that show, if I remember right), like no time had passed at all.
Hearing them play stuff like “Grounds for Divorce,” “I’ll Believe in Anything,” and “Dinner Bells” made me remember what it was like in 2004, when I first heard of the band through places like Said the Gramophone, Goldkicks/Goldkixx, and ordered the first two EPs from Cheap Thrills in Montreal. I remembered how mysterious the band seemed then, how they sounded so new and wild.
It was an amazing show, one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. They’re still a thrilling band.
Rock music can often be a delivery mechanism for sentiment, emotion, rhetoric. In “Something to You,” it’s a back-and-forth request, a confused plea: “Scoop me up in your arms/No/spit me out in the yard.” Later: “I just want to be something to you.” Overwhelming emotion, a need for someone else so powerful that you can’t quite articulate it, but you have a kind of shapeless urge or idea. Nanami Ozone deliver this with wave after wave of distorted guitars crashing, until the song diminishes to a spindly little riff halfway through, as though pausing to contemplate, and then builds a bit before the end before it cuts out, as though it had already revealed too much.
“NO” is a fun listen, a light shoegaze album, a little more transparent, a little more upbeat.
Waxahatchee played in Tacoma at Alma Mater/Fawcett Hall the other night, with Bonny Doon opening and later serving as her backing band. It was a wonderful show, and both acts brought a lot of energy and charisma to Tacoma’s newest (maybe best) concert venue.
Bonny Doon have a pretty laidback and pleasant vibe. Their music felt very affirming and sort of emotionally straightforward. Bonny Doon is also one of the only bands I’ve ever heard who could reasonably claim to be working in the same vein as my beloved Kingsbury Manx—turning out low-key beautiful songs that end up sticking with you longer than you’d think at first blush. Their set was fun and lively, and then they basically did a wardrobe change and came out to be Waxahatchee’s backing band.
This was the third time I’ve seen Waxahatchee (each time has been in a different state, weirdly). Katie Crutchfield’s set this time was a little more subdued than I’ve seen in the past and she seemed to lean a little more into the country and folky side of her songs this time around—the stuff from Out in the Storm was quieter and stretched out. She played at least one new song (that sounded fantastic), and played a couple tunes from the Great Thunder EP, which I hadn’t listened to at all. Some of those songs were familiar from their original release, but the way she played them live was so stunning—“Take So Much,” in particular, was incredible. The song seems (to me) like it’s about serving as a kind of unconditional support for a loved one who’s experiencing frustration and disappointment, and the way Crutchfield sings those lines, “Take it out on me, baby,” is gorgeous and haunting.
Press play and feel that warm bristling sensation flood your brain and body. Music that’s both familiar and foreign. Fleeting feelings and memories flash in your mind, half-appearing and not, quantum-level shithousery. A new type of feathered guitar, that evolved, bird-from-dinosaur style, from the old guitars. Echoes and allusions, you think Real Estate, Beach House. A sighing sort of supplication. Old houses’ window seats blasted with sun. A whole album of bright melodies and sweet and easy tunes.
Unbeatable. “Hug of Thunder” was one of my favorites of 2017, and this EP is a worthy follow-up to that album. It starts, like a lot of their records, with a mostly instrumental track as an intro, then launches into “Remember Me Young,” another instrumental song driven by tremolo-picked guitars, slabs of piano, synthesized bass, and ooh-and-ah vocals. The other three songs on the EP, “Boyfriends,” “1972,” and “All I Want” could sit comfortably on any of their albums, though I will say I keep coming back to “1972,” which has the same kind of right-here energy as something like “Shampoo Suicide” or “All to All.” This is an awesome EP and it’s always good to have more music from this band.
Caustic and imperious guitars, jumpy post-punk rhythms, lyrics delivered blankly in short declaratives. NOV3L have released their very good debut EP, “NOVEL,” on Flemish Eye, and it’s full of twitchy, high-energy songs. More than stuff like Gang of Four or the much beloved (by me at least) Women, NOV3L seem to be drawing some inspiration from the harsher aspects of bands like Orange Juice, or maybe Josef K (NOV3L show that same kind of stumbling momentum of songs like Josef K’s “Sorry for Laughing”). “To Whom It May Concern” is a staggeringly good song, and the rest of the EP shows the same kind of willingness to inhabit, modify, and bewilder familiar post-punk forms.
“On Reflection” is a collaborative album by Gold Panda and Jas Shaw (of Simian Mobile Disco) that came out in late 2018, which is maybe why there hasn’t been a whole lot of discussion about it. It’s a beautiful, laidback album, with lots of moments that feel characteristic of each contributor. The sound world in “On Reflection” summons up a similar vibe as the more stretched-out and wilder parts of the original “TRON” soundtrack, but without sounding at all like a retread (there’s also an aspect of a few of the synth tones that reminds me slightly of James Murphy’s “Remixes Made with Tennis Data”). “On Reflection” is a little stained glass window.
Pedro the Lion’s “Phoenix” seems like a loose memoir in album form. Apparently the album arose from the time when David Bazan, the main songwriter, took a side trip to visit Phoenix and the home he grew up in. Actually, the album doesn’t feel as much like a memoir as it does like a semi-autobiographical novel, because there are other stories besides Bazan’s that come through in these songs (primarily about his family, on songs “Model Homes,” “Piano Bench,” “Circle K,” and “Leaving the Valley”). The album pulls out memories and anecdotes (“Black Canyon,” features ‘Uncle Ray’, a paramedic who responds to an attempted suicide-by-car on the Black Canyon Highway; it’s a chilling song and one of the best on the album) and details from the past to recreate a whole world that’s now gone.
The whole album’s vibe reminds me a little bit of the first few lines of Wilco’s “Misunderstood”: “When you’re back in your old neighborhood/the cigarettes taste so good/but you’re so misunderstood/so misunderstood/There’s something there that you can’t find…” It’s all burrowing into resurrected feelings, the thrill of being able to revisit these memories alongside the attendant sadness of summoning these details (sometimes at less than high fidelity) from a past that will never exist again.
“Yellow Bike” was the first single and it’s my favorite song on the album, a recollection by Bazan of receiving and learning to ride his first two-wheel bike. It’s high-energy nostalgia, with Bazan’s vocals sounding somehow celebratory and mournful at once. There is a pretty great moment 40 seconds into the song, when the other guitars kick in, that brings a rush to the song, a little simulation of tearing off down a hill on a one-speed bike.
There was a lot of good music in 2018 (this is the kind of trenchant commentary that brings readers here). Below is my list of favorite albums and songs, presented in no particular order.
I admired a lot more music than what’s represented below, but what’s in the list is what I listened to most and what brought me the most enjoyment. As always, anyone seeking more comprehensive lists that are presented in more attractive ways, with better prose, would do well to check out the year-end lists and mixes at Said the Gramophone and Fluxblog.
Nils Frahm – All Melody
Nils Frahm is always good. This album feels superficially ‘light’ over the first few listens, but over the long term reveals itself as being complex, dramatic and grave.
The beginning of the song is bleak, rough, austere: cascading drums, bass. “Sending current down the barbed wire/burning currency in bonfires….” and “Whether we ask for it or not/deliver us to suffer again and again.” Matt Flegel’s lyrics read like a manifesto and he declaims them like a manifesto. There aren’t many people who sing with the same stentorian ferociousness as Flegel; every time he sings “Whether we ask for it or not…” it sounds like he’s rallying people on a battlefield.
Antidote takes on a different shape midway through. The drums trip over themselves, the pattern shifts. Flegel sings (utters) with flat, dead resignation: “Information overdose/looking for antidotes/uneven ratios/under a microscope.” (and variations of that). You get fed up with what’s happening all around, the sickness of it, but then it overwhelms you, there’s nothing to be done, you’re left searching—in a futile and perfunctory way—for answers that don’t exist.
It is staggering, watching the time-lapse evolution of the planet. First: accretion. Then it was a ball of hot iron and nickel. Volcanism reigned. Lava was everywhere, moving, spurting, flying all over and inside. Meteors hit, brought water (maybe?), and the moon was ejected, too weird and wicked to be a part of the planet. Atmosphere began to pile up, slow and steady, from the volcanic exhalations. Oceans pooled. Then everything was on fire again for a while. Then the planet cooled again and everything started to get its act together. It was a great time. Some chemicals and proteins and acids mixed together and flowed towards and away other chemicals. Then everything was on fire again.
“Unfolding” is the first single from Rival Consoles’s forthcoming new album, “Persona.” The song builds and annihilates itself. It collapses and rises up again. Subduction, erosion, eruption. It is beautiful and massive, pulsing, vivid, wild.
I wrote the following about “Not For Me” originally, but I think it works even better for “Ages Ago.”
Remember chaotic shows, in small theaters, in basements, in a hot attic in Virginia? Early morning Wawa donuts, coffee, and cigarettes. Sitting on brick walls. Someone always brought back handfuls of candy from work. Food, we were always searching for free food. Racing against the clock to get beer before midnight. Our friends snuck into the pool at the Holiday Inn, but we stuck with the one in our apartment complex, full of leaves and dead spiders. We went to see bands in Richmond and Newport News, bands that then dissipated like they’d never existed. You went to Fredericksburg and never came back.
I was a little surprised not to see more widespread or prominent discussion about this album, but music doesn’t quite occupy the same space in pop culture that it used to. “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” is a vibrantly weird, funny, and beautiful album, and “Four Out of Five” is its most spectacular song–so many good lines from Turner, with an ending that remains one of my favorite moments of music of the year.
“Wide Awake!” is another one that didn’t seem to get a whole lot of attention. I think this is Parquet Courts’ best album overall, and it’s so fucking fun too. It’s hard not to love an album with a lead track that references Dutch soccer, collectivism, and ends with the line “And fuck Tom Brady.” (and an album with a song titled “Freebird II”)
I loved the Clipse and I love Pusha, so it was thrilling to listen to “Daytona,” which was not only new Pusha music, but great Pusha music, the essence of Pusha’s aesthetic delivered in dense but accessible form. And then “The Story of Adidon,” which really is probably the most thrilling thing I heard this year–the only music I’ve heard in a long time that actually produced in me the same feelings of awe and surprise that usually come with watching something incredible happen in live sports (e.g. seeing someone hit a perfect rabona cross in the midst of a soccer match, etc.).
Jay Som released two great albums in two years, and now there’s a 7” of outtakes from the sessions that resulted in the absolutely unbeatable “Everybody Works.” Both “Pirouette” and “Meet Me Underwater” fit, in terms of quality, with the other songs on that album and have the same kind of energy. “I pray for answers/beneath the moon” Melina Duterte sings, seeking clarity, and then, halfway through, the song leaves the earth and lifts off into space. Incredible.
The more I listened to Topdown Dialectic’s self-titled album, the more I liked it. Some electronic music doesn’t give you much to hold on to, but this album has great melodies and rhythm and fascinating soundwork. It’s both expressive and restrained.
“Mood” is an insanely good song–I think I could listen to the outro to this track for an hour or two and not get tired of it. “Hive Mind” is an amazing album and includes what is probably my favorite musical moment of the year in “Come Over,” when Syd cues a scything guitar solo from Steve Lacy with a sweet, casually whispered, “Steve…”
This is a beautiful song about naked, wild yearning, sung beautifully. It all builds from slow, tender strums and whispered declarations into crashing electric turbulence. “Need you/want you.” What a simple phrase to express a humble and real truth. Sometimes you need someone so badly, it feels as if you’re about to burst right out of your own body—this song effectively renders that feeling in musical form.
“Alle Sauvage” is a car chase on a quantum level, through different dimensions. “>>>” feels like BEAK>’s most accessible and open album, ending with a song that is, for them, surprisingly tender and pretty, “When We Fall.” Every time a new BEAK> album comes out, I lament the fact that Geoff Barrow isn’t working feverishly on new Portishead music, but it’s hard to be disappointed when he’s making music like this.
All of Autechre’s “NTS Sessions” are on streaming services, so you can listen to the whole thing online through the service of your choice. I don’t think I’d heard much Autechre before I listened to the sessions when they were first streaming through NTS Radio, but I was captivated by it all, the breadth and depth of it, some of it just unparseable to my ears, but all of it fascinating. “All End” is the last track and it is mammoth: an hour-long ocean of static, shifting in tides and waves.
“Konoyo” is a striking and gorgeous album and seems far away from what Hecker has done previously. It’s filled with new and alien sounds, though there’s a moment in the middle of “Across to Anoyo” that sounds familiar: a guitar riff emerges that (I swear) seems like an allusion to a Godspeed You! Black Emperor riff; like a slantwise rhyme or half-rhyme to that riff.
Belle and Sebastian – How to Solve Our Human Problems (Parts 1-3)
Not their best, but better (I thought) than “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance.” Lots of good songs, a couple great ones, including “Everything Is Now (Part Two),” included here thanks only to this enterprising mash-up of the song with footage from “The Royal Tenebaums.”
I listened to “WARM” a whole lot last month. Jeff Tweedy’s first real solo album is better and more listenable by far than the last couple Wilco albums, and there are some songs on “WARM” that rank up there with his best. “How Hard It Is for a Desert to Die” is one of those; it starts with the heartbreaking line “I hear your laugh/in my laughter,” a reflection on his father’s continuing presence after his death.
I have a half-remembered line in my head from someone’s critique of Jonathan Ames, which I think he himself referenced somewhere: “For once, Jonathan, try writing with both fists.” “Sparkle Hard,” more so than other recent Jicks albums, feels like Stephen Malkmus writing with both fists–there’s a lot of urgency and energy in these songs, and they’re better for that. I think “Middle America,” “Solid Silk,” “Bike Lane,” and “Difficulties – Let Them Eat Vowels” are all late-career highlights.
I don’t know how Earl Sweatshirt is able to make music that so effectively feels both tossed-off and deeply considered, but he does it. This album seems so casual at first listen, like it’s coming together as you listen to it, but over the course of five or six more listens, you hear how weird and strange the music is, and how many ideas Earl packs into each brief track. It’s a feat.
Another incredible release from Wah Wah Wino, the Irish label responsible for last year’s astounding “Short Passing Game,” by Davy Kehoe. WINO-D feels wilder than Kehoe’s work, flightier and less focused, but just as entertaining and mysterious.
New Art Brut! The first one since 2011’s “Brilliant! Tragic!,” and “Wham! Bang! Pow! Let’s Rock Out!” feels like the product of a band that has been reinvigorated. Extreme energy on this album from the very first track, “Hooray!,” which sounds like Los Campesinos filtered through the Art Brut aesthetic (I’d never before considered the relationship between the two bands, but both Eddie Argos and Gareth David have a similar lyrical sensibility). The whole album has that background vibe of enjoyable collaborative creation: like everyone involved in the record reveled in the act of making music together. And there are some stone-cold classics on this album that could sit next to other Art Brut all-timers: “She Kissed Me (And It Felt Like a Hit)” inverts The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” to compare new love to the power of a ‘song of the summer’ pop song, with Argos closing out the track with a group chant of “Number one/all summer long!”. “Veronica Falls” is a beautiful, slightly gentler Art Brut song, about not cheating on one’s girlfriend, that sounds like a late 90s Britpop tune (something about the guitars make me think of a “Bends”-era Radiohead B-side). And the title track is one of Art Brut’s best in a long time, a distillation of their whole vision set to incandescent guitars: “There’s a fire in my soul/I can’t put it out” Argos declares after the group sings “Wham! Bang! Pow! Let’s rock out!” Staying out late, partying, meeting new people, an earnest belief in the power of music: these are the things that matter for them. It’s a fun album.