Fresh Tunes – The Beast is Back

Afghan+Whigs (1)

The Afghan Whigs were one of the first hard rocking alt-bands to join Sub Pop’s increasingly popular lineup of successful grunge artists, including Mudhoney, Soundgarden and of course Nirvana. Their career was rocky at times, but the band managed to make a dent in the explosion of scummy alt-rock, that dominated the 90′s rock radio scene. The Afghan Whigs style was not quite marketable enough to explode into superstardom like their labelmates: Afghan Whigs had a significant following, but their lack of a decidable radio hit kept them just under the radar for most people. Their biggest claim to fame was their 1993 album Gentlemen, which saw the band moving away from their harder grunge roots with a grander guitar sound, higher clarity and more insightful lyrics. Whigs made a name for themselves by combining hard rocking guitar with the vulnerability of a flawed frontman. On Gentlemen‘s “Debonair,” singer Greg Dulli hints at his personal downfall:

“Hear me now and don’t forget
I’m not the man my actions would suggest
This ain’t about regret
My conscious can’t be found.”

Much like Kurt Cobain, Dulli’s lyrics have a certain broken sadness that, while lacking some of Cobain’s sincerity and tragic frailty, still manage to be compelling. Yet after fifteen years of moderate success, Afghan Whigs called it quits in 2001.

The-Afghan-Whigs-Do-To-The-Beast-608x608Afghan Whigs surprised the music scene with a reunion tour in 2012 (though with bigger acts like Slowdive, Neutral Milk Hotel and My Bloody Valentine following suit, you’d be forgiven for not paying much attention). More shocking though was their announcement to release their first album in sixteen years. Do To The Beast contains much of what fans fell in love with in the grunge era: jangly guitars with a sleek crunch, Dulli’s signature smooth croon, and some precise drum work (a hard rock band that doesn’t drown out the chorus with smashing cymbals? Sign me up!). Dulli may be at a career best for vocals, sounding revitalized, vulnerable and a little gravelly (think more Future Islands than Nicklederp).Nickelderp_a2b906_746023

Do To The Beast avoids being a period piece by making bolder statements and amping up the band’s songwriting, offering a variety of styles that place these guys in between modern hard-rock and Mogwai-esque post-rock. “Parked Outside” kicks off the album with a guttural guitar explosion, proving that these guys have not lost any sense of grandeur. Dulli swoons in a chorus of “you’re gonna make me break down and cry,” delivered with so much conviction it avoids any potentially cheesy melodrama. “Algiers” is like a 90′s alt ballad played from a mountain top, chugging in with a crystal clear acoustic jam before the guitars bust in with unhinged glee. One thing is for sure: Afghan Whigs worship their guitars, and every crunchy lick and devastating minor progression sounds full of a fighting spirit. Afghan Whigs have the kind of confidence and precision of a band twenty years their junior, and it comes through clearly on Do to the Beast.

This album was recorded loud, because it was meant to be played very loud. Much like the new Pixies material, I get the sense that Do To The Beast is strictly a road record; these are songs meant to be played live, and the recordings follow suit with a faithful interpretation. This is by no means a lazy record, but it does detract from any cohesive themes tying it together. Then again, this is an alt band from the 90′s; you’d be hard pressed to find any “cohesive themes” on a Stone Temple Pilots album. These guys take their rock and roll seriously, and their brazen methods of versatility expand upon this in unexpected ways. “Can Rova” touches on the pop-folk appeal of Mumford or perhaps even The Head and the Heart, but the four-on-the-floor EDM finale is just subtle and fleeting enough to catch you off guard. “The Lottery” largely treads through previously conquered territory, but a cascading waterfall chorus casts off any doubts of redundancy. Nearly every song showcases the revamped guitar work of bassist John Curley and returning guitarist Mark Lanegan. Herein lies the record’s strengths: keeping the Whigs core sound intact while exploring new sonic possibilities, innovating in all of the right areas to keep the sound fresh and newly revealing. A few songs are merely passable, but Dulli’s tragically heroic vocals ensure this album’s relevance in the modern rock scene.

The Afghan Whigs are happy to just be playing shows again, and their critically acclaimed Coachella performance is a testament to their staying power. If Do to the Beast is simply a road record, then it sounds best blasting in a car stereo down the highway. For all the 90′s era reunions going on recently, the Afghan Whigs stare down their past demons with a grace and tact that puts them a neck above their competition. When Queens and Pixies rule today’s rock stages, the Whigs still prove themselves a fiercely capable dark horse.

Share

Fresh Tunes – The People are Back

foster-the-people

Foster the People’s new album Supermodel has a lot going for it. As a follow-up to the band’s 2011 breakout debut Torches, it inevitably tries to avoid being labeled a “sophomore slump” by deviating from what what earned the band such instant notoriety: quirky, memorable lyrics and electronic hooks that serve well as pop rock tunes with enough substance to be called indie. Songs like “Helena Beat,” “Houdini” and of course the acclaimed single “Pumped Up Kicks” forced their way into the mainstream consciousness by embracing what made MGMT’s first three singles such staples of the alternative radio scene: have an upbeat, electronic hook, a sing-a-long chorus, and just enough reverb to make the odd lyrics indecipherable to a general audience.

foster-the-people-supermodel-410On Supermodel, Mark Foster and crew attempt to branch out from that success by asking “Are You What You Want to Be?” Yes, FTP are already disillusioned with the fame that took them only three years to obtain. And yet, Supermodel does a decent job of exploring themes of interpersonal relations and consumerism in the modern world. If only it didn’t sound so “meh”.

Let’s start with what they get right. Mark Foster said that the new album would be heavily influenced by bands like The Kinks and The Clash, and it shows. Mostly gone are the heavy, warm synths found on Torches, replaced by a solid rock sound that still manages to sound substantial. There are even subtle African influences in places, which make the percussion stand out in particular. Mark Foster’s vocal abilities have also received a slight upgrade. He shows off a mellow croon on “Fire Escape,” and teases a welcome angst on “A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon”. He even goes into full ballad mode on the short interlude “The Angelic Welcome of Mr. Jones”, which is nice but ultimately unnecessary. Foster limits himself too much to the typical falsetto “oohs” and “do do doos” to really call this record an evolution. More like a slow crawl in the right direction.

This is where the bulk of Supermodel’s issues arise. Rather than taking a step forward musically, Foster the People have simply shuffled to the side. Songs are often jumbled and overly busy, lacking the focus of their previous efforts. “Nevermind” and “Goats In Trees” are immediately forgettable, while others like “Pseudologia Fantastica” balance on the cusp of brilliance without ever taking the plunge. True to concept, Supermodel focuses largely on the pitfalls of fame and living the #selfie life. And yet, few songs actually succeed in being meaningful and interesting at the same time. Ideas of media consumption, bad acid trips and self-discovery are floating around here somewhere, but end up being too generic and preachy to be of much interest. These songs desperately crave to be the kind of social commentary that last year’s Arcade Fire and Lorde records were doing with relative ease. “Coming of Age” just doesn’t mean much coming from a guy who wrote commercial jingles just a few years ago.

There are some solid songs on Supermodel. Coming of Age” is a relatively tame alt-anthem, while “Pseudologia Fantastica” provides some decent thrills. The best song by far is “Best Friend,” which actually manages to groove pretty hard. One wonders what the album might have been if they had worked forward with that song’s charm in mind. Ultimately, Supermodel screams “rushed”. Few songs will have you coming back like “Pumped Up Kicks” did just two years ago. But really, the world is not lacking for bands like Foster the People. Empire of the Sun, Phoenix and Passion Pit would all gladly fill the hole left by MGMT’s early departure into psychedelic territory. In an age where fingers eagerly hover over the skip button, Foster the People could use some rest and a little peace of mind. And if you’re gonna pull a Kanye ego trip, you best have a Yeezus in your pocket.

Share

Fresh Tunes – Something Soft, Something Hard

Nothing+band

Close to the Glass
The Notwist

The-Notwist-Close-To-The-Glass-608x608Anyone can make electronic music. Every necessary bit of hardware or software, every bit of knowledge, every tip or trick or tutorial is available to everyone now- and for relatively little money. And with that ubiquity of knowledge and access to all the necessary tools comes a sort of over-saturation, “If everybody knows all the tricks, it’s no more magic” says Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk. So the game has now become one of separation; of being absolutely and totally unique among thousands of new artists. The Notwist has fully realized this shift in the electronic music paradigm and has crafted something that genuinely separates them from other artists with their ninth and newest album.

During the first moments of Close to the Glass, one gets the impression that this could just be another head-nodding rip off of electro from the 90s; an arpeggiated synthesizer texture embellished with random rings and beeps and a skittering snare beat. But then the vocals enter. The voice is untreated: no vocoder, no auto-tune, calmly speaking about hideous signs and something about screaming. There’s some strange subtle terror waiting underneath these tracks, something unexpected or unnoticed, or combination of sounds that shouldn’t theoretically work together when discussed soberly.

And that really is the greatest strength of this album- its ability to defy expectation. “Kong,” the third song, for example, would almost seem completely out of place on this album were it not for its development into an absurd and oddly cohesive mash of orchestral layers, acoustic guitar, electronic glittering, and raucous bass. The marriage of these elements, electronic or otherwise, imbues Close to the Glass with the magic Thomas Bangalter feels is lacking in much of recent music. Anyone can make electronic music- but few can make it like this.

Guilty of Everything
Nothing

a3943802535_10There’s a hot, twisting frustration and rage in those who feel disconnected from or overwhelmed by reality. Everything moves too fast and too slow, there’s nobody to talk to, there isn’t enough time, there’s energy with nowhere to go. “I’m caught between a beggar’s teeth,” sings Domenic Palermo of the band Nothing. The newest album from the Philadelphia quartet seems- to us at least-to be exploration of that frustration with detachment from a world out of time with one’s own rhythm. From this exploration, Nothing has made something dark, loud, and beautiful.

The landscape of each track is very similar; the vocals are treated as a musical instrument fully engulfed by the haze of incredibly loud ambient guitars, bass, and drums. Instead of lyrics that are heard, Palermo’s singing is more of a texture that is felt. It draws one in, trying to decipher the already cryptic lyrics Nothing has buried under heavy, leaden sonic layers. But perhaps that’s the message itself, trying to make sense of something that would be easy were it just a bit different. The themes in Guilty of Everything, then, are embodied by the music itself, a masterful and nuanced act on Nothing’s part.

But despite whatever nuance one discovers in the way Nothing has orchestrated Guilty of Everything, it’s important to remember that this band is loud. The tender, ambient moments give way to hysterical paroxysms of dissonance and consonance. Nothing sounds like they are collectively exorcising whatever demons of the past that may still haunt them. Even in their liner notes the quote, “To all things we’ve ever hated. To all things we’ve ever loved. Thanks for making this possible,” punctuates pages of lyrics juxtaposed with black and white pictures of a prison shower, a junkie spiking his vein, and other-almost ominous- photographs recreating bleary-eyed memories and recollections. We still don’t know entirely what Nothing is trying to tell us, but we are entirely sure it is important.

Share

Fresh Tunes – Something Old, Something New

the-crystal-method-4e4d3a4153c72

Electronic music has never done anything but change. What began in the ’70s as a sort of novelty has now become a pervasive force with scores of subcultures, styles, and the ability to infiltrate most any musical genre. Daft Punk released their carefully crafted (and divisive) record last year, and now The Crystal Method, another welterweight duo from the nineties, is taking their turn to re-image themselves in this new and incredibly diverse landscape of electronica with their recent, self-titled release.
crystalmethod

Aptly named “Emulator”, the first track on The Crystal Method’s new album is an undeniable throwback to their Vegas days, erecting simmering sonic slides and bumps around spoken vocal samples that build to towering grooves. The true trademark of TCM comes from their vast spectrum of synth textures and percussion. Like a circus with a dozen different acts being performed at once, there is always some new sound, some new melody or pattern to turn your ear to pay attention to. On track six, “Jupiter Shift”, it becomes almost a game trying to follow any one melody or texture as a dozen others crash, rumble, shriek, and buzz all around. It would be exhausting were it not for Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland’s ability to inject vitality and energy into most everything they craft.

And it’s that energy- that visceral how-do-you-like-me-now attitude balanced with slow, fresh moments of sonic space that makes this album special. A surge of adrenaline only lasts for a few moments before the crash, and likewise Jordan and Kirkland have smartly paced this album to not be completely exhausting to listen to. That being said, only thumping these tracks through a pair of headphones, alone, is a lot like hammering a nail with the blunt end of a knife, that’s not what the tool is for and you are going to hurt yourself. Truly, this album belongs in a place where just as much energy can be expended as what it was constructed with. And that place is a dance floor.

thumpers_galore_album-500x500There’s a powerful sort of magic in the bright memories from childhood, and Thumpers are well aware of it. Friends since the age of 11, the musical duo seem to have harnessed their rose-colored past and crafted something full of smiley, giddy energy in their debit album Galore.

The first track, “Marvel,” acts as a thematic overture for the rest of the album; creative and powerful drum beats, hazy vocals, and synth textures that add fullness to the band’s sound. Even its very first lyric, “stay young”, is an idea this whole album appears to be focused on- almost obsessed with, actually. Throughout Galore the lyrics, “I wish you were sixteen,” “bed jumping, him and her are full of passions tonight,” “we’re tired but ripe,” and, “two beating hearts,” makes the impression Thumpers is aching for you to make your sunny summer memories, which is funny since this album is being released in the middle of February.

Though this is their debut as Thumpers, Marcus Pepperell and John Hamson Jr. are not new to indie music. Collectively they have been a part of the bands Antihero, Pull Tiger Tail, Noah and the Whale, and Friendly Fires. Their experience certainly shows. Galore is full of enough energy to send it bouncing off every wall in the room, but is seems to be done purposely. The sound of each track is similar, but never feels overworked or tired. Through their experience, Pepperell and Hamson have learned control over the atmosphere of each track and the atmosphere of the album as a whole.

Making music while doing a thousand-yard-stare into the past is not new. What’s special about Thumpers is they have managed to craft something without any eye roll-inducing cliché that usually comes with nostalgia. Galore is creative and lively, and most importantly, it’s just fun.

Share

Fresh Tunes – Indie and R&B

Mutual-Benefit

Mutual Benefit’s debut LP, Love’s Crushing Diamond, is beautiful. It’s a simple, sunbathed collection of tracks that – to be completely honest- took us entirely by surprise.

a4241493582_10This folk album is warm and earnest and a bit slow, entirely unlike the rollicking folk pop that finds its way onto top 40 playlists all over. The songs on this album often start after a good fifteen seconds of fooling around and giggling, or after what seems like a sort of coalescing of separate sounds; on “Let’s Play’ / Statue of a Man”, a drummer gives a few taps while a keyboard plinks about aimlessly over what sounds like a children’s toy coming to life. Somebody hiccups and laughs quietly and suddenly every click, plink, and strum is together. This small bit of playfulness makes many of the songs feel quite open ended, like a group of friends sitting down and making something they all love together.

Jordan Lee, the master songwriter behind this album, doesn’t seem to be grappling for attention in the same way that other artists are. There are neither ear worm hooks to get stuck in one’s head, nor foot-stomping choruses to shake stadiums of sweating, dancing people. Instead, Lee has crafted something that flows easily and joyfully and quietly. I think much of this album’s power lies in the sentimentality of the listener. If one has ever felt a pining for home or old friends or slow, sunny days I think that person will find much to love in this music.

Devonté Hynes- the man behind Blood Orange- seems to be restless. Prior to Cupid Deluxe, he recorded five albums underBlood-Orange-Cupid-Deluxe three different groups.  He has written or produced songs for Sky Ferreira, Florence and the Machine, Theophilus London, and Britney Spears. Despite his eclectic musical past, Hynes newest album is incredibly focused and cohesive.

At the moment, many indie rockers seem infatuated with recreating the sounds of the 1980s, and Blood Orange is no exception. Every track is a swirl of R&B, new age beats, and vocals provided by either Hynes himself or one of the many guests he brought along to help him articulate his often mournful sentiments. Caroline Polachek (of Chairlift) and Samantha Urbani sing wet-eyed echoes of Hynes, or duet with each other throughout the album. On “No Right Thing”, Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth lends his voice to make tight harmonies that glide over the skittering and shaking beats built by producer Clams Casino. Rappers Despot and Skepta make appearances, breaking out of the traditional 16-bar form, and spin their own nostalgic tales of broken relationships and recording equipment.

There are many guest artists on this album with their own voices. And like a conductor with an orchestra, Hynes carefully crafts a single space for all his voices to inhabit. Whether that be the head-nodding album opener “Chamakay”, or “High Street” that races through memories of a newly successful artist, all the tracks on Cupid Deluxe mutter or shout proclamations of heartbreak or loneliness or emancipation from comfort. Hynes has gazed inside himself and collected his fears and sadness to create something meaningful. With this album, Hynes leads us through a world of alienation and struggle that we would have otherwise missed.

 

Share

Fresh Tunes – Coliseum Releases Sister Faith

Coliseum

Coliseum proves once again that less is more on their 5th studio album titled Sister Faith; their throwback 90′s indie alternative rock before the term “indie” even existed, conjures up images of annoying hipsters shopping at Pac Sun. This album is proof that a modern band can be full of aggression and heaviness yet still make an album with practically no “bells and whistles.”

Sister Faith

Sister Faith

While other punk artists fill their music with layers upon layers of guitars backed by a deep rhythm section, Coliseum build’s their songs around melodies and riffs without giving up the integrity of either one  Sister Faith is a classic-sounding album full of straightforward in-your-face rock ‘n roll songs. There are hints of their heavier past,  “Doing Time” pounds out a mid-tempo Dead Kennedy-esque riff, and the five-plus minute “Love Under Will” is driven by bassist Kayhan Vaziri’s thick bass line along side Patterson’s vocals and a alternative sounding guitar that is bit more distant. “Under The Blood Of The Moon” is cut from a similar cloth; impressively, it paints an even darker picture through haunting Misfits like vocals with bass and guitar riff’s that are reminiscent of early Nine Inch Nails.

The back end of Sister Faith is filled with energy, with such songs as “Black Magic Punks”, the upbeat and heavy “Bad Will”. It all ends with an interesting song named “Fuzzbang,” which explodes in its harmonic distorted guitars and is backed by a top notch bass line, this tune could be easily mistaken for a Torche song. “Fuzzbang” is a great way to end the fun, yet heavy album, in which Coliseum show their heavier metal past while creating their punk present.

Share