By The Staff
What Moon Things
What Moon Things
Modest Mouse releases a new album in 2015, and though some of us will greet the birth (after a seven-year labor) like fresh-baked manna from heaven, Isaac Brock’s Strangers to Ourselves may well sound small next to the huge, Isaac Brockian yawp of What Moon Things’s self-titled debut. The vocals strain and crack, the guitars’ harmonics bend in classic “Dramamine” style, and if the rhythm section isn’t half as tight or as central to these songs as Jeremiah Green and Eric Judy are to The Moon & Antarctica (2000), that gap gets filled with enough negative space and Ketamine-grade reverb to dizzy up a legion of dorm room bong-rippers. On the blasted heaths of “The Astronaut” or “Squirrel Girl,” squalls of throat-scorching screams and blistered riffage explode out of the darkness like long-buried ordnance from a forgotten war. If you make it through, you’ll go back right away, addicted to the rush no matter how harrowing the experience itself might be.
In an alternate universe, Wild Beasts rule the land. (It’s possible this alternate universe is just called “England,” but I haven’t had time to ask Robin to confirm.) Four pasty lads greet us from the palace balcony, assembling one by one while we crane our necks to get a view, even a glimpse through the throng of our neighbors’ reverent bodies, our coworkers’ bodies, our children’s, our enemies’.
Chris Talbot steps out first, juggling his drums in the air before letting them fall into perfect configuration at his feet, whereupon he sits and drops an octopus-armed beat on a fleet of toms. The crowd undulates, sways from the hips. Next, Ben Little appears, picking out a high-necked, palm-muted riff that latches itself to Talbot’s rhythm like a leech to a fat, blood-filled thigh. We hear the sharp intake of breath, our collective lungs filling in anticipation: who will play the bass? It’s Hayden Thorpe, sashaying onto the platform, all stunning bone structure and immaculate topcoat, his groove playfully tugging and nipping at Little’s riff as it coils and uncoils, coils and uncoils. Thorpe croons to us, something about a sex toy we’ve never heard of or a lover’s teeth pressing into our soft flesh, his falsetto everything we’d been promised it would be. Finally, Tom Fleming bounds across the balcony, shaking his guitar as his baritone shakes our bones. He croons along with Thorpe, a tale of dark sex and sexy dark, and we all undress in the grey dusk, baring our bodies to the drizzling rain, barbaric subjects tamed and loosed all at once, howling on through the night.
More Than Any Other Day
Is it a sign that the world’s old and about to end when a music critic can say “throwback post-punk” with a straight face? If so, at least here’s Ought to celebrate our demise.
More Than Any Other Day is a fucking fantastic record. Derivative a bit, perhaps, but where familiarity oft breeds contempt, here it gives way to a sense of blessed déjà vu. You will feel like you’ve heard every one of these songs before, but you haven’t. They will be the missing tracks from your favorite punk, post-punk, and no wave records and they will sound, 100%, like they could have belonged. To Talking Heads, to Pere Ubu, to Wire, Mission of Burma, Sonic Youth, Minutemen, etc. In fact, More Than Any Other Day sounds like Double Nickels on the Dime (1984) Benjamin Button-ing its way to something younger and yet older at the same time. The funk is traded in for languor, the brevity for continuity, the genre-hopping for selective integration of influence. Yet, too, there is a wide-eyed fervor with which Ought dive into these tomes and come out the other side holding up something vital. Most of these songs talk of things unsettling, tragic, or disaffected. But Ought bring punk’s energy to bear. They exalt our “limitation,” as the astounding “Habit” intones, yelps, and yells about patterns of belief and ritual budding within communities of people trying to express something ineffable, though in the song it‘s made intensely personal and relational. It’s as if it’s our failures that will save us.
The title track begins with slow acceleration in tempo on the lyrics “We’re sinking deeper / And sinking deeper” before exploding into the most positive punk anthem you’ve heard this side of MxPx, while front-man Tim Beeler’s smirking but earnest sing-talk and the adroit music being played around it never let anything ecstatic sound less than an equal part wry. “Today, more than any other day, I am excited to feel the milk of human kindness” foreshadows Beeler later making a decision at the grocery store between whole and 2%. But, most importantly, there’s the conclusion where Beeler claims that today, more than any other day, he is the center of everything, then the song‘s closing statement: “Well, today, together, today, together, today, together, today, together / We’re all, all, all the fucking same!” And there—in just a couple measures and a burst of light—is self-awareness giving birth to real empathy. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, a punk record whose politics are this simple, unfussy, and moving.
I won’t quote closer “Gemini,” it just doesn’t seem proper somehow, but suffice it to say that the way that song builds and resolves, musically and lyrically, is one of 2014’s most charged moments. It sounds both angry and joyous, like Ought manage to take all their discontent and in the mere expression of that find freedom and release. And this is why Ought should do a show at the apocalypse, this is why they’d be the perfect band to go down with the Titanic. They don’t shy from the truth of everything that’s going wrong, but in their brilliant, even-keeled zeal they make it seem like “everything is gonna be okay.” Because “okay,” in the end, belongs to the mind.
Ricky Eat Acid
Three Love Songs
Three Love Songs boasts the most aesthetically striking album arc of any record I heard in 2014. Starting off as mood-rich yet playful ambient, these instrumentals demonstrate a sly elasticity of dynamic, the music’s shifts both, or in turn, subtle and pronounced. This stealthy mechanism of intra-compositional progression then forms a larger inter-compositional movement that fluidly slips, slides, and splashes out into hip hop-tinged house. When tracks 7-9 hit, they feel earned; “In My Dreams We’re Almost Touching” might be the dance track of the year, a Drake flip rendered poignant through relentless repetition and held up on keys and drums which beckon your submission to their irradiated groove—after about twenty minutes of amorphous music that still bears its DNA, it’s revelatory. Ambience reclaims the record’s close, but a structure wouldn’t have a silhouette without the air around it. In splitting the difference between GYBE and Drizzy, Ricky Eat Acid discovers the space created is where he can build everything new and beautiful and what forms he chooses to endow with weight become indelible by rich contrast. Penultimate “I Can Hear the Heart Breaking As One” would be a gorgeous track on most records, a trio of synth, piano, and chopped vocals whirling slowly, peaking then draining; sandwiched between the seven-minute electro-wanderings of “Outside Your House…” and the dribbling tonal nirvana of “Starting Over,” it sounds like a monument, aching perfectly and completely in place.
To be honest, the Sun Over Hills EP that Ricky Eat Acid released in July might be even more exciting purely from the standpoint of the artist freeing himself from artistic conceits—with which Three Love Songs is not burdened but certainly enamored—and just pushing his music in the most promising direction he can, an ebullient post-dubstep of sorts. But there is something about what Three Love Songs chooses to do, so carefully considered, that will linger with me even as I struggle to recall what happens “Inside My House,” “Your House,” or “Outside.” Because it’s not about the what or the where or even the who. These are merely expressions of the why.
On Three Love Songs Ricky Eat Acid is able to make time and place sound like a statement that’s a signifier for something else. A preacher’s ranting is, incredibly, not satirized, though certainly the music emphasizes the creepiness of the confused human haze that surrounds some sort of mythic truth. And, again, Drake’s existence is exonerated, which is no less incredible. Context is everything, they say. Well, everything is the context of Three Love Songs, distilled into what Ricky Eat Acid chooses to look at or listen to lovingly and then refashion into the body of his work. Most ambient/found-sound/electronic records parlay the cerebral, this one’s a spiritual, an ode to art and the inner self prayed through keyboards and samples. So many contemporaries of Ricky Eat Acid seem on a quest to capture the cosmos, be it micro or macro; Three Love Songs is interested in neither, its reach present and intimate. The title’s a mystery, but for me the “three love songs” are this: the love song Ricky Eat Acid hears, the one his music sings, and the one(s) that stir in our hearts. What could be more infinite than that living magnanimity?
Your Old Droog
Your Old Droog LP
I feel for Nas. Debut with one of the best rap records—nay, best records—EVER…and that shit’s destined to haunt your career. For Nas that meant years of artistic peacocking, over-wrought rhymes, children’s choirs, rap savior complexes, forgetting what good beats sound like. Nas never stopped being a good rapper, he just stopped releasing good records, and I’d posit that it wasn’t so much that he couldn’t follow up Illmatic (1994), it’s that Illmatic wouldn’t let him. That Nascence glows with its own perpetual life, the life of Nas to that date turned to pure word and worthy beat. It was one sentence, one complete thought that embodied all thought; a sentient sentence that would not permit Nas to write further apocrypha. Really, the only recourse—the one Nas never took—would have been to let go of the ambition to build on something that wholly complete and absolute unto itself and just, you know, do some lazy, excellent shit. Throw some Wu-Tang schlock and grit into the mix, make something generous—a little gem of a record that’s just plain good.
Well, it may have only taken him a couple decades, but that unrefined pleasure is exactly what Nas has delivered with this EP released under the Your Old Droog moniker. This is Nas being our old droog: kicking back, smoking one, flowing savoir-faire over beats that are dust, moon, sun, streets, bootlegs—all part of the same crackling loop (rap, like life, is pregnant with recurrence). This is liberation from legacy so as to swear fealty to the music itself. It’s rap reverence.
Or maybe irreverence because, shit, the audacity that this is Nas but, actually, not Nas. Somewhere, sometime I hope Nasty listens to this tape; then, let “God’s Son” weep. Let him witness the resurrection his own music will never have, dwelling in the flesh of another. Then let him go back to making tracks with ex-wife digs, reggae collabs, and Scott Storch. Illmatic, clearly, has touched Your Old Droog. Touched so deeply, he’s been changed by it. I know the feeling, so why would I treat this EP as mere homage when, to me, it sounds like rebirth? Like everything else, it’s no Illmatic and yet it is a kind of incarnation; Nas as he never was, now with us.
After the End
This was supposed to be Merchandise’s year. That’s what the narrative foretold, anyway. And from a certain perspective it was, as a label deal with 4AD afforded the Tampa-based post-punk band both a music video and tour budget, feature-length press profiles, and the requisite resources—and thus reach—to attract new listeners. The acclaim for After the End was mere formality. And yet here I am four months after the record’s release volunteering to write about an album that was positioned, at the very least, as a potential critical breakthrough. Merchandise quietly garnered a wider audience this year, and did so on their own terms—that they aren’t exactly Future Islands is no fault of their own.
A lot of proverbial ink was spilled in the run up to After the End, much of it centered on the band’s newfound accessibility and commitment to song craft. And indeed, After the End is Merchandise’s strongest collection of songs to date, a set of immaculate, slow-burn meditations as concerned with mood as with melody, however content the band may be to graft the latter onto the former without so much as raising an eye to acknowledge newly curious onlookers. Granted, you don’t write a strung-out torch song like “Life Outside the Mirror” expecting to set the internet ablaze, but then woozily romantic, ‘80s-accented dream-pop tracks such as “Enemy” and “Green Lady” sound to me less like a break with the band’s former selves and more like a logical, albeit grandiloquent, extension of their core sound—the best of both worlds. Sure, guitars ring and shimmer where they once churned and boiled in blankets of distortion, but Carson Cox’s songwriting, likewise more melodically sound than ever before, is just as introspective and mercurial as on such past standouts as “Become What You Are” and “Anxiety’s Door,” if not more so. If Merchandise are now leaning more toward the listenable than the outright experimental, then so be it. I listened to After the End more than any other record in 2014.
Alvvays is what love sounded like in 2014: sentimentality ruthlessly fighting forces of detachment. Your crippling debt, your ceaseless inner monologue, and all the other little doubts swirling around romantic commitment Molly Rankin implores you to set aside for the person on the other side of the relationship. There’s a bluntness to this record that suggests fatigue with the hang-ups of coupling. In “Party Police,” Rankin directly asks her lover, hung up on unspoken thoughts about either her or a girl from his past, to forget whatever troubles him and enjoy her in the now. The achingly simple couplet with which she expresses this sentiment becomes the centerpiece of the record: “You don’t have to leave / You can just stay here with me.” The intense yearning of her delivery, combined with the subtle doubling of the vocal melody in the lead guitar, makes it a chorus that still breaks my heart after fifty plays.
You’ve heard this sound before. With the group’s reverb-heavy guitars and clean-as-an-angel vocal lead, you’d be forgiven for initially relegating Alvvays to the pleasant-but-banal realm of retro-chick pop saturated by Cults and Best Coast. However, Rankin’s sardonic directness, paired with engaging narratives and deft pop craftsmanship, helps the record transcend its modest sonic pocket. Alvvays are masters of the chorus—not one of the record’s nine isn’t instantly stuck in your head in an unobtrusive way—but it’s the way they’re employed that keeps their album beguilingly elusive. On “Next of Kin,” we hear the story of a friend who went swimming and drowned over a musically-ace reinterpretation of jolly ’60s beach pop. “Adult Diversion” works a similar trick, jangling about as Rankin sings about a run-in she had with the cops. It’s heavy shit delivered with dead-eyed sunshine, and the misleading tone keeps the record unfolding in new ways months after its release.
Alvvays is a postmodern love record above all else, an album engaged with the real world and the escapism necessary to make sentimentality sing. The juxtaposition of bright delivery and emotionally complex subject matter is emblematic of the conflicting forces. “Archie, Marry Me,” can listen as breezily as a Laura Nyro song but is loaded with exhaustion. Whereas an act Alvvays riff off of might ask “Marry me, Archie,” because Archie’s hunky, Rankin delivers the lyric out of pure frustration with Archie’s millennial concerns of student loans and the existence of true love. It’s the war being fought throughout the record. Ultimately, love wins Alvvays in the same way an underdog who gets beat at the end of a sports movie wins the film: it battles, tries its hardest, and wins over the audience, but in the end the realities working against it are too much to overcome. Would that it were not so.
So It Goes
So It Goes reminds me of a lyric that jumps out in a series of killers from “Iron Galaxy,” off Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein (2001): “New York is evil at its core.” On Ratking’s first full length, New York is a seething, grinding character, its familiar sounds evoked by Sporting Life’s industrial hiss. You can hear the influence the series of squealing tones that announce the approach of a subway train have on “So Sick Stories,” or the existential smallness one feels when surrounded by skyscrapers have in the melancholy saxophone of “Snow Beach.” And in this environment are Wiki and Hak, two kids from the city NBC won’t broadcast, spitting with the ferocious fire of born underdogs. Both from Uptown, “soul of American century, no dispute,” the two prove an irresistibly contrasted duo, Wiki Jay to Hak’s Silent Bob, the former loquacious and brash, the latter reserved and poignant. Wiki jumps in every verse with his “veins bulgin’ out,” every biting lyric delivered in a chest-thumping, nasal sneer, and Hak comes in for a caramel counterpoint, either in the form of a plaintive hook or a more impressionistic—though no less biting—follow-up verse.
But for all its fire, So It Goes is a melancholy record, its brashness in response to a city that, to Ratking, is dying, its character slowly scrubbed away by the influx of gentrifiers. Hak and Wiki are here to recall the city’s darker heart. When Hak drops “Wouldn’t last long on Lenox, you scared to come up/but you need to be as scared of the come-up,” the clever, alliterative lyric is a boast shouting out Hak’s home street, as well as a reminder that for many, Harlem is still a “no-go” area (though realtors appealing to Colombia students and young people looking for the Great New Brooklyn are working hard to change that.) There’s the racist cop character at the head of “Remove Ya” that proved all too prophetic for the Eric Garner murder. Amidst the ugliness, there’s still beauty—the devotional verses Wiki shares with Wavy Spice on “Puerto Rican Judo,” or Hak’s stone-kicking hook on “Eat.” Still, So It Goes is a record by and for outcasts, and while there is diehard pride to be had being on the outside, it’s not enough to quell the sadness inherent in looking in.
In an interview, Toronto’s Jennifer Castle called the knee-jerk comparison between her (as well as presumably any other female singer-songwriter) and Joni Mitchell as a “sexist bitch slap.” I get it: we all love Joni Mitchell, but at the least it’s critical shorthand, at the worst it’s an assumption that every hushed lyric is ripped straight from a diary and probably about some lost love, a stereotype that didn’t apply to Mitchell, and certainly doesn’t apply to Castle. There’s nothing in there about tributes to mentally-ill painters (“Broken Vase”), dread-filled rural prostitutes (“Nature”) or marriages about to unravel (“Like A Gun”), songs on Pink City that are rendered with such vivid color and empathy the distance between Castle’s perspective and her protagonist’s seems no thicker than skin.
Perhaps that’s the problem. Castle earns the comparison not out of a shared gender, but a shared moment. In the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, when everyone was looking inward in a collective shell-shock, record labels and producers were willing to throw money at singer-songwriters who, in retrospect, seemed mostly doomed to obscurity from the outset. Mitchell is one of the few survivors, but Castle seems to share more of a kindred spirit with those who peaked quickly and descended quietly like Judee Sill, Linda Perhacs and Phil Ochs. All of these artists were equally at home with the kind of flourishing orchestral arrangements that accompany opener “Truth is the Freshest Fruit” as well as the loose jazz of closer “Pink City.” Minus the big budget, Castle still has the endless innovation and collaborative spirit of the scene surrounding Toronto’s Tranzac, and even thousands of miles away, I can hear the snow whipping against the front window when I listen to the season-ending lament of “Sparta.” But it’s “Sailing Away” that’s the best summation of the album’s perspective: a single, furiously beating heart with no need for anything but itself.
Brian Eno/Karl Hyde
At this point in history, it’s easy to see Brian Eno as more of an idea, a curator, or a collection of tastes and approaches than an actual artist. One thing about declaring yourself a “non-musician,” embracing serendipity and accidents and carving an aleatoric path through your late career, is that it doesn’t exactly come with a quality control button. Eno’s prolific run on Warp that began with 2010’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea is mired by a paralysis of choice: in flirting with infinite possibilities, they often go nowhere. Given that Eno’s never been a purely experimental composer, and that even in his least pop moments he’s beholden to a set of moods and associations as easily recognizable as that Windows tone he produced in the 90’s, his famous set of vague instruction cards (“Oblique strategies”) could never be more than an eccentric form of taking a walk in the woods to clear your head. What he needed was not to think laterally, but vertically.
As if aware of this, he’s called his new collaboration with Karl Hyde High Life, which is both a reference to a very specific strand of Ghanaian music, as well as a more universal aspiration. Every aging white male musician looks to Africa at some point in his career, but what makes this album stand out is not only does it feel like one of the best mid-life crises ever recorded, but it also represents a great alternate history, imagining what pop albums like Here Come the Warm Jets (1974) and Before and After Science (1977) might have sounded like if they were created out of the same experiments in globetrotting and polyrhythm that produced My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981). The difference between this and his more recent albums is drastic: where an album like Small Craft is simultaneously busy and sketched-out and can only sustain short track lengths, High Life is shockingly minimal, expansive and feels like it could easily go on forever. That might sound like slight praise, but when opener “Return” builds its 9 minutes to a climax based mostly around 2 chords, percussion that sounds like a plastic tub and Eno’s unintelligible, lazy baritone, it’s an unusual kind of chemistry. At the very least, it’s an alternate history where U2 didn’t just make it to Rolling Stone’s album of the year.
A lot of the success may be attributed to Hyde, whose perfectly-positioned upstrokes are often the determining factor in the almost Reichian rhythmic patterns. But give it to Eno for making that trebly, pan-African sound of “DGF” sound like sonic pointillism, for making digital detritus the backbone to a gorgeously sad comedown on “Cells & Bells,” or the way the vocals on “Time to Waste it” are twisted and mangled without ever losing their form, or “Lilac,” which is just one of the best pop songs he’s ever written. While in the recent past, it seemed like Eno was looking forward to a bland future, High Life feels like the way he might have imagined the future from 30+ years ago, and consequently feels like the best thing he’s done since.