The Blonde Redhead of Masculin Feminin—which came before the Blonde Redhead of Misery Is A Butterfly, and 23, and all their later work—were a spiky Blonde Redhead, an abrasive Blonde Redhead, a more challenging and confrontational band. The early recordings collected on Masculin Feminin remind me a whole lot of early Liars—punky, weird as hell, tons of energy, crazy experimentation. This box set is massive and includes Blonde Redhead’s first two albums plus a bunch of outtakes, live cuts, and demos. It’s always interesting to see the trajectory of bands, like Blonde Redhead, who start off with a more noisy, experimental aesthetic, and then, over time, move towards pop, towards sweeter melodies, towards something calmer and (arguably) more focused (Animal Collective comes immediately to mind as an example). Why is that such a common arc for artists, I wonder? Without doing any research, I’d posit that that sort of aesthetic movement (from avant-garde→mainstream) occurs more often than the reverse (although there is a word, via Thomas Mann, for the artist who is more experimental as he or she grows older: Greisen-Avantgardismus). I don’t need an answer to this question, but I would like one.
Pock-splish-tick. Cattail heads beating against a hollow log. Rain collecting in a bucket. Wall boards expanding in the heat. Someone humming. Wind kicks up. This is a stretched-out music, made from delicate, natural components. Cello as landscape. Cello let wild so that it goes to seed. Cello that has to survive on its own. This album is beautiful and dark and bewildering–so many of the songs (e.g. Not Here and Dark Sky, White Water) twist and turn and never settle all the way. It’s a thrilling listen.
Beach Slang do hard work. They are conductors: energy flows through them. All their songs crackle and pulse. There is nothing torpid or fatigued or half-hearted about any of their music. It is all tight-fist-around-the-mic intense; lots of uninterrupted eye contact. This is the kind of music that, if you were the type of person to not only attend but also organize church/community-center basement shows, you will receive it gratefully and cherish it. And even if you were never part of that kind of scene: this is just good music. Reminiscent, to me, of Art Brut’s early years—it’s the same spirit of joy, excitement, and ruthless pursuit of an aesthetic ideal.
Sometimes you want your old faves repackaged in a different skin. He-Man as a virtual reality installation; The Fox and the Hound staged as a super-allegorical play; MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em rereleased with a 1,000 page oral history of the album’s recording process. For example. Or old punk, punk-adjacent, and new wave songs covered by two sweet-voiced singers, as is the case here with Katy Goodman and Greta Morgan’s Take It, It’s Yours. Cover albums are, for sure, weird things in general, but they can make you reconsider old classics, think hard thoughts about why you love what you love, and newly hear and enjoy music that you might not have spent a lot of time with lately. Take It, It’s Yours is pleasant and chill, good listening for a Sunday afternoon.
Memory is to Preoccupations’ self-titled album as Death was to Viet Cong’s self-titled album. It’s the mega-song, the big statement, the protean centerpiece. It starts with a stutter and lurches into a pseudo-groove, then the song opens up and Matt Flegel’s voice (which sounds uncannily like Jeremy Irons’s voice, at least to my ears) enters. In the chorus, he sings: “You don’t have to say sorry/For all the things you failed to do/You don’t have to say sorry/For all the times when everything fell through.” The song feels at first like a dour sort of eulogy, a cry of grief, but then it shifts and the middle section of the song lifts off. The music speeds up, the rhythm changes, a skipping guitar riff pulls everything upwards, then Dan Boeckner starts singing, and it’s like a perfect 80s British post-punk song has been placed in the middle of Memory as an interlude. Flegel comes back in to join Boeckner for the last anguished bit, “Erasing/Your memory,” until the song degrades into a long, pulsing drone for its final four minutes.
Preoccupations, the album, has a sustained mood over most of its tracks—it’s agitation, ennui, and being unwell. And Memory is so effective because it offers a respite from that feeling of unease, a calm breath, a moment of actual tranquility. Preoccupations, like Cymbals Eat Guitars’ Pretty Years, is an impressive work and one of the most remarkable albums of the year. Super focused and intense. Not easy listening, but rewarding listening.
Cymbals Eat Guitars’ new album, Pretty Years, is even better than LOSE, which I thought was such a perfect distillation of the band’s aesthetic that they’d never be able to top it. Pretty Years is slightly less elegiac (the song Have A Heart is even a very pretty and happy love song), and a little more forward-looking, though there’s still no other band that does sad-as-fuck retrospection as well as this band: Wish, about missed chances; Dancing Days, about slowing down and settling; and the album-closing (and heartbreaking) Shrine, which is about, among other things, the question of what happens to our accumulated memories, experiences, and mental bric-a-brac when we die.
Over these last two albums especially, Joseph D’Agostino’s lyrics seem to have become more personal and more focused on his home regions—he sings in a way less guarded way about New Jersey, Staten Island and New York City, and Philly, where he lives now. As someone who moved from the East Coast to the West, when I listen to some of the CEG discography, it triggers the activation of so many memories and associations, particularly with 4th of July, Philadelphia (SANDY), which is so Philly it might was well be wearing an Eagles jersey (Cunningham), holding a soft pretzel, posing like the Rocky statue, sporting an unkempt goatee, and dialing the number for 94WIP. D’Agostino sings about spending time in Philly on Independence Day and encountering some (I’d say) typically aggressive Philly behavior, which shocks him out of his depression and listlessness, though he admits, at the end, that, even though he’d experienced something surprising and intense and wanted to remain in that mode, i.e. being present in each moment, he slipped back again into the same feelings he’d had before. It’s so fucking bleak, but it’s also so goddamn good. Cymbals Eat Guitars are an incredible band and they definitely deserve way more attention than they get—Pretty Years is one of the best albums of the year.
Dianne is a memory pulled from the past, set to a pulse. Jess Cornelius’s voice gives us detail, emotion, commentary. She sings with a non-diegetic narrator’s authority and distance from the action, even though she’s singing about herself (but a self that is long gone and far away). It’s a volatile story paired with a dance tune from the 00s: surprising rhythm and sweetness. A song to bop around with, to puzzle over. I love the way Cornelius sings, “Some things just down work out that way, Dianne.”