Wednesday, May 7, 2014

May Hot Rocks

Check out the latest releases, torn straight from the pages of our May issue

The Notwist
Close to the Glass
Sub Pop
The giddy post–Kid A rush of electronic indie pop hit a peak in 2003, with the both the Postal Service’s blockbuster Give Up and the Notwist’s sadder, stranger Neon Golden. While Give Up went for the cute pop, Neon Golden used its technology to conjure a world of quiet desperation, a disconnection amongst the blinking lights and buzzing machines. It feels like wandering lost in some empty metropolis at night, waiting to be found. A decade later, it still sounds like little else. 
Nowadays, the Postal Service plays stadiums; when I saw the Notwist, it was in a former ballroom with no backstage. Perhaps realizing this, the band brought back some of their guitars for The Devil, You + Me, a very friendly, very poppy record in 2008 that was good but disappointing, lacking whatever ineffable alchemy made Neon Golden. Now comes Close to the Glass to split the difference between the two.
A few songs on the new one recapture the strange magic of Neon Golden, including the pinging arpeggiators and string drones of opener “Signals,” the scratchy vinyl sounds and scratchier drum machines of “From One Wrong Place to the Next,” and the wandering hopelessness of “Casinos,” where Markus Acher finally admits in a a quiet moment of self-reflection, “There’s something wrong with me.” The title track finds a moment of true invention as a steel drum sound is shuffled and shuddered, resulting in wildly stuttering bass throbs that are unrelenting and almost hypnotic. It’s a strangely abrasive turn from a band that usually prefers  pensive. But perhaps best of all is the gorgeous closer “They Follow Me,” with its ghostly beeps and slowly decaying violins.
And then there’s lead single “Kong,” a sunny turn to guitar strums that, on its own, is a nearly perfect bouncy pop song, but in the context of the album completely undermines the mood of yearning mystery established early in the record. The nearly nine-minute instrumental “Lineri,” while pretty, is far too long and feels strangely situated as the penultimate song, killing momentum before the closer. Even more out of place is the distorted guitar rock of “7-Hour-Drive,” a sound the Notwist haven’t tried since their earliest incarnation as a grunge band—understandably.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of poor sequencing, but the record lurches back and forth like this, toggling between unrelated sounds and irreconcilable moods without ever settling. That’s a problem. As listeners found out on Devil, the band makes good electro-pop music, but that other unique thing they do—that awed melancholy, that searching wonder, that aching lostness—is what’s truly great. And perhaps this same problem, this inability to match previous heights, is the very reason the Postal Service never made another album. Ryan Boyle

Sun Kil Moon
Caldo Verde
2012’s highly underrated Among the Leaves found Mark Kozelek drastically stripping down his sound, opting to record with a simple nylon-string acoustic guitar to accompany rawer than usual lyrics about the frustrations of being a 40-something musician 20-something years into his career. In the hands of a lesser songwriter, this could’ve been indulgent or masturbatory—the lyrics spin tales of awkward one-night stands and surly fans drunkenly demanding the Red House Painters songs on which his reputation rests—but Kozelek conveyed his middle-aged malaise with naked emotional honesty and the technical skill of a songwriting master.
His excellent follow-up, Benji, finds Kozelek exploring family, death, and the frustrations of aging and loss with even further precision and depth. It is a record that feels borderline out of time in the current musical landscape of electro-pop, blog bands, and hip-hop. 
It starts with the mournful “Carissa,” a song about Kozelek’s second cousin who died in a freak fire at 35. It is punctuated by Will Oldham’s distant backing vocals and slowly plucked acoustic guitar strings. “Carissa” sets an excellent tone for the journey ahead on Benji, as Kozelek sets off home to Ohio “to find some poetry / to make some sense of this / to find deeper meaning in this senseless tragedy.”
Along the way, we are introduced to the characters in his life, from his parents to his mentally handicapped neighbor, with striking lyrical detail, delicate acoustic guitars, and at least one killer drum breakdown from Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley.
Benji ends with its peppiest number, “Ben’s My Friend,” a song about eating sports-bar crab cakes and watching The Postal Service on an August evening. “There’s a fine line between a middle aged guy with a backstage pass and a guy with a gut hanging around like a jackass / Everyone there was 20 years younger than me,” Kozelek sings between mundane complaints about his bad back and his father fighting with his girlfriend at some mid-American Panera. 
Then, perhaps sensing that he sounds like a curmudgeon, he adds, “Ben’s my friend, and I know he gets it.” It’s a line that punctuates Kozelek’s lyrical frankness perfectly. After spending a majority of the album cataloguing his fears and faults, Kozelek isn’t losing sleep over seeming uncool to the kids dancing at a Ben Gibbard show. Benji is an unflatteringly earnest portrait of middle age, full of homespun charm, carefully crafted detail, and deeply heartfelt humanity. Ira Gamerman

Solstice Part One (Advice from a Fortune Cookie)
Listen up, St. Louis. Some of the best hip hop in the country is coming from this city: Tef Poe, Rockwell Knuckles, Loose Screwz, Thelonius Kryptonite — and now Con, the lyrical prodigy behind Solstice Part One (Advice from a Fortune Cookie).  
Con, better known as Malcolm Chandler, has been performing around St. Louis as one half of the rap duo AtM for the past few years. When his writing partner, Amir Wakil, took a brief hiatus, Chandler put the time toward finishing a solo album. Over the course of a year, he convinced some of the best producers in St. Louis—including Mastermind, Osmoses, Cue Coldblooded and Franco-Hill—to contribute a number of their least domesticated tracks to the project. 
The result is the aptly titled Solstice Part One, twelve diverse yet interconnected tracks about coming of age in the 21st century. Like most millennials, Chandler understands that the personal is political, and he uses his story to good effect. A recent breakup serves as a deeper metaphor for adulthood: the loss of innocence, the awareness of political corruption, and the need for self-medication.
These themes come together with the greatest impact on tracks like “Nostalgia” and “I Love You.” On the latter, Chandler and his frequent collaborator Ciej rap over a slithering, minimalist beat that forces them to walk a verbal tightrope across near silence. When the chorus hits, it reads like a double-dutch rhyme for juvenile delinquents. Starting with a capitalist critique—
“I ain’t tripping off of no dollar bills / Why y’all let that shit run y’all”—and careening through images of blunted highs, cartoonish gun violence, and ride-or-die women, the lyrics illustrate how a bad relationship can change the worldview of any young man. 
While the story is compelling, the real achievement lies in the way that Chandler, his producers and the rest of the MME collective deliver the details. On “Sweater Under Leather,” Chandler comes across as a young Kanye West, racing ahead of the beat one minute and slowing down the next, creating an elastic sense of time on an otherwise straightforward track. Singer Dharma Jean achieves the same effect on the choruses, reaching for high notes in the most unexpected places. The end result is an album of classic ’90s hip hop as reworked by psychedelic artists like Bon Iver and Panda Bear: experimental yet mainstream, nostalgic yet entirely original. 
As Chandler points out in interviews, the solstice represents “life on the cusp,” light conquering darkness, growth following decay. With St. Louis poised to make its own comeback, underground hip hop sounds like the future of the city. And this town is ready for the national spotlight. K.E. Luther

No Coast
Rock N’ Roll All Night (Yeah Right)
Self Release
Somewhere off mic (in the crowd?) a voice drunkenly shouts the first half of this album’s title—only to be met by the second half’s retort before the  drums bust into opener “Enough Is Enough.” Indianapolis’ No Coast stumble through thirty-five minutes of punk, surf and rock that just make you want to joyously dance like an idiot. And I recommend you drop the extra cash to get this album on vinyl and revel in the lo-fi sonic vibrations that come across much better on record than they would on digital download. 
Singalongs like “Cruel City” or “Impossible” prove this band can write a good pop song with the best of them, and Side A ends all too quickly in a gorgeous array of guitar feedback which, coupled with the sound of the stylus lifting off the record and coming to rest in its cradle, is among the greatest sounds in human history.
            One thought that keeps coming back to me is that this must have been what listening to “Psychotic Reaction” must have felt like to someone in the ‘60s. It’s silly, it’s catchy, it’s fun. It’s a great record to listen to at a party or with the headphones on, or just turned up full blast to test the limit of your speakers. Nate Black’s lyrics yearn for  more than the hopeless present and long for that golden past and silver tomorrow, as the band lays their hearts on the line without sticking them in your face. It’s clear this band has done their homework, wrapping evocative lyrics in neat surf rock grooves that would make Brian Wilson proud.
Side B admittedly is not as strong as Side A, but on tracks like “Get Along” and “Outta My Head,” the songs always seem to find themselves by the time the chorus kicks in. By ska-touched closer “Straight Line,” you get that last call sort of feeling to the album, where it’s best to get out before you’re the last to leave. At thirty five minutes, Rock n’ Roll All Night (Yeah Right) album is fun, fast and very replayable. Rev. Daniel W. Wright

Amen Dunes
Sacred Bones
Amen Dunes is the solo project of Damon McMahon, who has maintained a rare commitment to songwriting through relatively straightforward means. While the mechanisms of his songs have remained largely the same since the inception of Amen Dunes, a closer inspection into the catalog reveals small dynamic shifts from album to album and, rather inconspicuously, the new album Love offers a span of new approaches. 
Amen Dunes recordings have largely been solitary recording affairs, so adding a variety of guest musicians and a mix of instrumentation has resulted in the much more conversational interplay heard on Love. Comprised of eleven elegant tracks, the songs strut by at a very mid-tempo pace… sometimes even slower. Tracks like “White Child” or “Lonely Richard” are lead by reverb-washed, strummed guitar chords and thumping drum patterns that lay the groundwork for McMahon’s songcraft. The title track utilizes deep piano chords that glide in and out of tonality, in similarly heavy riff-like movements. Hovering vocals also situate in similar fashion; however, where most vocalists would rush in, McMahon’s delivery maintains carefully measured spaces. Easy comparisons to ’70s songwriter ilk are fairly warranted, but run half short; Love equally brings to mind the saturated and minimalist explorations of The Velvet Underground, the dreamy melodicism of Arthur Russell, and the tonal wanderings of John Fahey — and furthermore, Amen Dunes occupies an interesting and fitting space on Sacred Bones’ diverse roster. Raymond Code

Wye Oak
Merge Records
Wye Oak is receiving a lot of attention about Shriek, mostly with claims about how drastically different it sounds from anything the band has done before. While it’s true that the Baltimore indie-rock duo are branching out, these songs aren’t that fundamentally different from their previous outings. It’s still a record full of solid songwriting, and Jenn Wasner’s heavenly voice is ever present. There’s just a lot more to it all now.
Wasner was already dipping her toes in the electro-pop pool with last year’s side project Dungeonesse. Their self-titled debut was very ’80s pop influenced, occasionally cheesy in a lot of fun ways, and also, it turns out, a great primer for Wye Oak’s new direction. 
Finding themselves on opposite sides of the country, Jenn Wasner and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack swapped song ideas for Shriek back and forth, which seems to be a pretty popular — and obviously effective — technique in the age of the Internet.
Album opener “Before” is the thesis statement for the record to come: the bass lines are prominent, there are numerous synth and keyboard sounds, the drums are perfect back and forth in the mix, and Wasner’s pleasant voice delivers all the sweetness you’re used to. This careful balance continues on the title track, as what sounds like chirping birds reverberate far off in the mix. “Glory” steals the show with a flashy chorus and refreshing groove. 
There maybe be considerably less guitar this time around, but it still squeals through on “Paradise,” a track whose signature synth and thumping drums bring to mind late-era Police and Genesis. 
For the skeptical longtime Wye Oak fan, I submit lead-off single “The Tower,” which hit blogs a few months ago. I predict the oddly syncopated synth hook will pique your interest, and the late-arriving cello and buzzing bass will remind you why you liked this band in the first place. There’s no need for Wye Oak fans to decide on disappointment with the band’s new direction on  Shriek, because it’s lovely evolution. Jack Probst

May You Marry Rich 
Memphis Industries
OKC’s Colourmusic first hit the blog scene in 2006. A band unlike any other, they were heavily influenced by Sir Isaac Newton’s theories of color and light, and put on wild and unpredictable live shows. Two years later they released their first full-length f, monday, orange, february, venus, lunatic, 1 or 13, also known as their orange album, which was mostly composed of songs off their earlier Red & Yellow EPs (get it?). These tunes ranged from fresh and poppy to fist-pumpingly powerful. Colourmusic hit St. Louis a number of times, and crashed through every set whether the room was full or spotty.
Fast forward to the spring of 2011, after the song “Yes!” piqued the interest of a UK label. Colourmusic jumped the spectrum to My ________ Is Pink, a collection of aggressive songs about all the awkwardness, frustration and passion of sex. The band wanted to give the world a rock album, because people need it, and it’s one that compels you to listen to from start to finish in one sitting. May You Marry Rich, their purple album, sees the band rocking hard in a similar fashion. 
Most tracks are clouded with layers of bombinating guitars and bass alongside vocals that are so echoed and spaced out they’re almost indiscernible. This isn’t a complaint, as the music speaks louder than the lyrics ever could. The record starts off hard, with a real punch in the face by the second track, “Dreamgirl ‘82,” where a powerful guitar hook pierces your ears, whirring phaser bass and pounding drums melt your brain, and the vocals reverberate evilly around the room. Later, “Silver Tape,” reminiscent of the orange days, finds a more angelic and euphoric tone straight off the bat. “The Idiot” sinks deep into the darkest purple of the album, ending as it does with an atomic bomb. Colourmusic may be a band you’ve never heard, but their brand of heavy space rock might just change your life.
Jack Probst

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