In the formidable challenge that is counting down the Top 50 Songs of 2014, today is the day we reach the halfway point and then keep going. The songs are getting progressively better, more epic, catchier, and more emotional. That’s how lists like this work. I hope you’ve enjoyed what’s already been covered in the previous two installments. Click here to see #50-41 in the countdown. Click here to see #40-31. Is there a theme to the set of 10 songs featured in this particular post? Not that I’ve been able to discern. You’ll find a couple of hip hop tracks, a couple of R&B cuts, a couple of synth pop numbers, and some other things that can sometimes feel like they’re straight out of left field. It’s nice to get a little unpredictable from time to time. So here we go: The Top 50 Songs of 2014 #30-21!
Category: BNM (Page 2 of 7)
This Top 50 Songs list is not organized in any other way than by perceived order of excellence, so when you have a look at the set of 10 below, you may be surprised at how thematically related almost all of them are to one another. It was a total fluke things worked out like that, and in fact I didn’t even notice myself until writing up this introduction. The overarching theme is love, whether you’re falling into it, out of it, or somewhere in between, which is a subject matter as old as music itself. I just looked it up, and apparently about 60% of all songs written today are about love, so I guess the similarities aren’t all that shocking after all. Anyways, let’s get right into it, shall we? This freight train keeps rolling on with #40-31 of the Top 50 Songs of 2014! Oh, and in case you missed it, here’s #50-41.
Welcome, dear reader, to the official kick off of Listmas 2014! For the uninformed, Listmas is the grand tradition here on the good ‘ol site that celebrates the end of the year with a series of ranked lists. It’s not really a new or novel idea, and in fact pretty much every site that covers music releases their own lists, though I suppose very few put it all together under one broad label like this. Yet the word has also become part of the jargon people use to talk about this list-making season every year. Anyways, it’s my sincere hope that you’ll keep checking back and reading the site over the next couple of weeks while the slow roll out of Listmas takes place. We’re starting this week with the Top 50 Songs of 2014 countdown, and following that up next week with the Top 50 Albums of 2014 countdown. There are currently designs for another extra list or two leading up to Christmas and the site’s annual holiday break, but I won’t go into detail on those yet because there’s still a good chance they might never be written or published. The last couple of years this endeavor has become increasingly difficult to put together, and resulted in delays that pushed a list or two past the holidays. So let’s keep our fingers crossed that everything gets done in a prompt and concise fashion this year.
Today we begin the journey of counting down the Top 50 Songs of 2014. Before we launch into this, a couple of quick notes. This list will be parsed out at the rate of 10 songs per post, ideally kicking off on Monday and ending on Friday. Along with the artist and song title, I’m pleased to provide different ways for you to hear each of the songs on this list. Some will be available for free download, but most will be streams through Soundcloud, YouTube or Spotify. The hope is to make all of this music as universally accessible as possible so you can hear everything should you so choose. Once the list is complete, I’ll include a link to a full playlist on Spotify where you can hear almost everything, as a few artists on this list don’t have or refuse to use Spotify. In regards to what you can expect, I’d say don’t make any assumptions and mentally prepare yourself to be outraged at some point. You’re not going to love every song, and the picks range from the very obscure to the super mainstream, even in the Top 10. No artist is featured more than once, though that rule technically doesn’t apply to collaborations or featured vocal spots. The goal is to spread the love as widely as possible, so hopefully that comes across in the end. So without further ado, please join me past the jump for Faronheit’s Top 50 Songs of 2014: #50-41!
A fair number of people have absolutely no idea who Owen Pallett is, even though they’ve likely heard his music in one place or another. His primary claim to fame has been as a composer/unofficial member of Arcade Fire, most recently earning an Oscar nomination for his work with the band on the soundtrack to the 2013 film Her. Most, if not all of the band’s string arrangements come directly from his brain. He’s composed for other bands on occasion as well, including Beirut, Grizzly Bear and The Mountain Goats, the latter of which was a lyrical inspiration for his new solo record In Conflict. After releasing solo material in the mid-00’s under the Final Fantasy moniker (which he was forced to change due to a lawsuit with video game creators Square Enix), in 2010 Pallett put out Heartland under his own name. Like everything he had done up until that point, Heartland was a concept record, telling the story of Lewis from a fictional realm called Spectrum, who faces off in a battle with his God (named “Owen Pallett”). It was a rich and engrossing album that practically demanded to be heard in full in one sitting, each thread connected and lightly pulling on the one before.
In Conflict is similar in that it too is best digested all at once; however conceptually speaking there is no singular narrative or storyline to follow. There are themes though, and many of the songs deal with self-doubt, depression, loneliness and the challenges of connecting with others. These are things we all face from time to time, though some of us deal with it a lot more than others. There seems to be a lot greater resonance the older you are too, as friends slowly disappear into their marriages and families, what’s a thirty or forty-something single person with no children to do? In the opener “I Am Not Afraid,” Pallett appears to have come to some sort of a resolution about his life. “I’m not at all afraid of changing / but I don’t know what good it would do me / I am no longer afraid / The truth doesn’t terrify us, terrify us / My salvation is found in discipline,” he sings with confidence.
Yet as quickly as he finds direction, he loses it once more. “On A Path” is about losing your place or outgrowing your hometown and the subsequent wanderlust as you search for a new place to settle. Mental illness and the “It Gets Better” Project are the focus of “The Secret Seven,” inspired in part by the suicide of gay violin student Tyler Clementi. Pallett seeks to relate his own experience with mental illness as a teen as well as those of his friends in the hopes of helping others dealing with the same issues. He even gives out his phone number at the end of the song so those in despair can call him to talk if need be. Later in the record “The Sky Behind the Flag” deals with the desire to control every aspect of our lives and exert that same influence on the world at large. The idea is that such micromanagement can only end in destruction and implosion, as others as well as the universe do not like being ruled by an iron fist. Above all else however, “The Riverbed” probably best represents the album’s overall themes. The subject matter on that track ranges from writer’s block to depression to alcoholism to growing older without children, which is basically a nasty cocktail of anxiety and dread. Dark as it may get, the final verse seeks to provide some degree of solace, particularly with the line, “Try to admit that you might have it wrong.” In other words, though you may be haunted by your failures, perhaps everyone else considers you a success.
Such is the point of a record titled In Conflict, as our mental states often clash with one another in obtuse ways. That idea also comes through from the instrumental side of things, supported in no small part by the master of the oblique, Brian Eno. While Pallett does an incredible job with string/orchestral arrangements and there are plenty of them on this album, he’s also chosen to expand his sound to incorporate more electronic elements. He’s done a fair amount in that area before, but never to such an extent. Pretty much every song has at least a touch of violin in it, but there’s also a wealth of digital effects like beats and bleeps, often accompanied by some sort of synth or Mellotron as they work well together. Those sorts of moments are particularly evident on “The Passion,” “Infernal Fantasy,” the title track and a couple others. It’s easy to say that this is where Eno’s influence bleeds through the most, as the non-symphonic, non-guitar areas are almost always his specialty. The only disappointing thing about it will likely be how some of these songs come across when performed on stage. There’s a certain excitement that comes with watching Pallett build sonic landscapes through his unique looping techniques, and electronic/synth stuff pulls him out of that world, however temporarily.
As a whole, In Conflict represents yet another masterstroke from Pallett, who has increasingly proven to be one of the top composers making music today. The lack of any official conceptual elements connecting all of the songs through characters or ideas relieves us from the distraction of trying to analyze and dig out some sort of storyline so we can focus on what’s really being done and said on the individual tracks. Every moment is fascinating in one way or another, be it a delicate instrumental composition or a single word/phrase. Whether or not they are influenced by or autobiographical to the man behind them is certainly up for debate, but what’s not is their intention to provoke a response from the listener. Hidden beneath the themes of fear, anger, depression and anxiety is the message that everyone has their own path, and the choices you make, no matter how good or bad, are an attempt to do what’s best for yourself. Thankfully, this record allows Pallett to give us the best of his conflicted, brilliant self as well.
Owen Pallett – Song for Five & Six
If you’ve heard a Real Estate record before, very little may surprise you about their new one Atlas. It’s another collection of lackadaisical songs with weaving guitar melodies supplemented by jangly chords. This time however, everything gets alternately clearer and cloudier. How so? Well, to start this is the first Real Estate album that’s been cleanly produced and doesn’t have touches of lo-fi haze built into it. Matt Mondanile’s serpentine guitar work benefits most from this adjustment, glimmering like a freshly polished diamond. It’s most effective on tracks like “Primitive” and “Had to Hear,” when you could almost refer to those lead guitar parts as another voice that acts in tandem with Martin Courtney’s silky vocals. This is a band that has quietly become a well oiled machine, as they now know what works and how to get there with the least amount of trouble. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the lyrics on Atlas, which bring the dizzyingly fun highs of their previous records down to earth. Real Estate were the sort of band that wrote songs about spending time at the beach or bumming around suburbia with your friends on a summer day, but now the sky has become overcast and the temperature has taken a nosedive. “Our careless lifestyle, it was not so unwise,” Courtney sang on “Green Aisles” from the band’s 2011 record Days. As nice of a sentiment as that was, those days (so to speak) are over, and now it’s time to grow up and be a responsible adult. Going along with that are relationship struggles (“Talking Backwards”), crippling anxiety (“Crime”) and the realization that everything changes and we can never truly go back (“Past Lives”). Pairing those emotions with the band’s trademark sound proves to be a rather inspired combination, resulting in their catchiest and most mature album to date. It’s also their best, right down to the carefully structured sequencing. All of this shows that Real Estate have certainly learned a thing or two both personally and professionally over the last few years. Now it’s time for them to teach us, and that goes well beyond simple guitar tab videos.
Over the course of four albums, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) has undergone a complete transformation. This fact is most evident in her album covers, the first two being self-portraits displaying what might best be described as wide-eyed innocence. Her new album is self-titled and once again features a photo of her on the cover, only this time her hair has gone from black to white and she sits atop a throne in an ornate dress, a look of power and control on her face. So too has her subject matter focus evolved from miserable suburban housewives and the curse of domesticity to powerful tyrants and society’s weaknesses when it comes to facing such leaders. In essence she’s been writing songs about the oppressed this entire time, but she expands to a greater and more epic scope with each new record. It’s similar to how her skills and sonic palette have grown in that time, as she always offers up something different to engage the listener and keep us guessing.
More so than anything she’s done previously, on St. Vincent Clark plays around with all sorts of digital sounds and effects. That’s clear right from the opening track “Rattlesnake,” where her guitar doesn’t even show up until well past the halfway mark. And while there’s plenty of examples of digital prevalence on this record (almost ironically, not so much on the song titled “Digital Witness”), it’s perhaps most obvious on the skittering, almost science fiction dystopian “Bring Me Your Loves.” What’s missing? Well, the ornate orchestration that permeated much of her first two records is all but gone, though 2011’s Strange Mercy certainly started that decline. Her buzz saw guitar solos have also largely started to take a back seat as well, though when they do show up as on “Huey Newton” they’re so completely distorted and compounded with effects you might not even recognize that’s the instrument you’re hearing.
In a sense, it can sometimes feel like a waste of talent if Clark isn’t using the greatest tool at her disposal on pretty much every track. What ultimately makes it okay is how she fills in those spaces previously occupied by guitar solos with other things and strong songwriting so you don’t notice nearly as much. Slightly more worrisome is how little St. Vincent has to share in terms of innovation and general evolution. The album is different because it emphasizes other elements and concepts, but none of it is anything we really haven’t heard from Clark in some different capacity. As the song title from her 2009 album Actor implies, what she’s giving us is “Just the Same But Brand New.” On the plus side though, absolutely none of the record feels stale or disappointing. It also couldn’t have come from any other artist. Annie Clark has reached a level of comfortable confidence that many other artists spend entire careers searching for. Whether this self-titled album marks the end of one chapter or the beginning of the next, it’s a defining moment for one of today’s smartest and most compelling rock stars.
When someone’s very personal vision is on display for all to consume, they’re taking a huge risk putting themselves “out there,” since the reaction to it can range anywhere from hugely positive to incredibly negative. Yet there’s also something wholly refreshing about it too, because even if it sucks at least nobody can accuse the artist of compromising or playing it safe. That’s probably why the best books, films and albums also operate on the fringes of popular culture, because people actively crave the most positive and idealistic things, and anything that doesn’t conform or forces you to relate to it in more than a superficial way fails to provide the necessary escapism from their not-so-great lives. Which makes a great case for why there’s likely to be a heavy division between those who love and those who hate Sun Kil Moon’s sixth record Benji. Then again, most of those who won’t like the album are probably not even aware enough about music to even know this exists in the first place. It’s what’s known as a specialty record, with a sharp emphasis on “special.” Rest assured that no matter how you react to it, you’re unlikely to forget this listening experience.
If you examined Benji solely for its instrumental composition and remove Mark Kozelek’s vocals from the equation entirely, there’s a very good chance you’d shrug and think of it as just another folk record. There’s nothing flashy or wholly experimental about the way these songs come together, even though they’re more varied and dense compared to more recent Sun Kil Moon efforts. That’s largely done intentionally, so as not to distract from the lyrics and the way they’re being sung. More specifically, every track isn’t so much a song as it is an intensely personal story pulled directly from Kozelek’s life. He’ll talk about his parents (“I Love My Dad” and “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”), other family members who have died (“Carissa” and “Truck Driver”), serial killers (“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”), provide explicit details of his sexual history (“Dogs”), and give his perspective on one of America’s most recent tragedies (“Pray for Newtown”). Is any of it true? Is all of it true? A little research about the names, dates and location details in every song appears to point towards complete honesty, though on occasion a name might be changed to protect the innocent. Every tale is told with such interesting and vivid specificity that you can picture it in your head, while also generalized enough that just about anyone can relate to it. That remarkable balance is what turns this from a good record to a great one.
Given that somebody dies in almost every single song on Benji, you might think that this is a pretty depressing album. How Kozelek avoids falling into that trap is by painting vivid portraits of the people he’s singing about. Their experiences turn out to be just like our own, a grand mixture of triumphs and failures, happy moments and sad ones, and everything in between. Don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to make it through this lengthy record in one sitting due to all the emotions it conjures up. That’s just part of what it means to be a living, breathing human being. Kozelek writes about all these people and topics because they’ve changed his life in some way, and creating poetry out of them is his way of returning the favor. One can only hope it will inspire others to do the same.
This is the big one. Welcome to Faronheit’s Top 50 Albums of 2013 countdown! Over the next few days, I’ll be revealing my unveiling the full list, 10 albums at a time. We do this every year, and it’s always an adventure. Things are running just a little bit behind schedule at the moment, as I’d hoped to have this up before Christmas, but I appreciate your patience and promise to have everything posted before the end of the year. Did you happen to catch my Top 50 Songs of 2013 list from earlier this month? In case you missed it, all of those posts can be found simply by clicking this link. While I’m always excited to share tracks with you, as evidenced by the daily Pick Your Poison posts, albums hold a special place in my heart. This site was started with the intention of writing long form album reviews, and unfortunately in 2013 strayed further away from that than ever. A combination of factors, from having a really busy schedule to endless amounts of writing and rewriting to bouts of writer’s block prevented me from cranking out more than a few album reviews each month. It’s something I have a strong desire to get back to however, so that’s going to be a primary goal for 2014. As things stand now, all 50 of the albums in this countdown have short paragraph mini reviews to go along with them, so in a sense I’m packing a year’s worth into just a few entries. I hope you enjoy them, and maybe even discover some great records that you missed from this past year. Let’s get started then, shall we? Follow me after the jump for the first set of ten albums, with #50-41!
They were bred for this. Well, maybe they were. Somebody ask their parents about that. One thing is for sure though – the three sisters that make up the band Haim have been making music from the very first moment they were able to. It’s certainly no coincidence that each of them plays a different instrument too: Danielle is lead guitar, Este is on bass, and Alana does keyboards/synths. Danielle and Este spent their late teens as part of a cut-and-paste major label band called Valli Girls, where they performed a bunch of songs written by a team of professionals intent on marketing to tweens and teens. Generally disappointed with playing a bunch of songs they didn’t write or necessarily like, the two Haim sisters left the band and went Partridge, complete with mom on lead vocals and dad behind the drum kit. Covers were their specialty, diving into the songbooks of everyone from Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac to Shania Twain and R&B legend Wilson Pickett. Of course it’s tough to make a living as a cover band, let alone a family cover band, and there comes a time in every parent’s life when they need to shove their babies out of the nest and let them try to fly on their own. And so we have Haim in their current incarnation, complete with long-time session drummer Dash Hutton to add percussion into the mix.
The buzz began in early 2012 when the single “Forever” was released as part of a three song EP, which along with some heavily hyped performances at SXSW got them a record deal. Their sound is best classified as a mixture of their influences, largely stemming from their upbringing and cover songs played with their parents. Fleetwood Mac is the name that gets referenced most often, however it’s most apt to say that they’ve got the late 80’s/early 90’s soft pop sound on lock, with dashes of R&B thrown in for good measure. Think Phil Collins and Richard Marx mixed with En Vogue and Kate Bush, and that should give you a decent impression of where they’re coming from. Those names might raise a lot of red flags or conjure bad memories, and there’s the inclination to suspect that they’re really just exploring those genres out of complete irony, however there’s extreme sincerity in every single thing they do. That’s really what sells the listener on the idea and earns the band the right sort of attention and respect in spite of all other factors. The new twists on old familiar sounds are also what make their songs seem very “of the moment.” For example, you could easily say that their latest single “The Wire” is a natural blend of the most classic periods of Shania Twain and The Eagles. Beyond that sonic comparison, the addition of each sister taking their own verse plus those dynamic harmonies really helps to elevate it to a “song of the year”-type status. Make previously strong singles “Falling” and “Forever” your lead-ins, and the start of their debut album Days Are Gone turns into a 1-2-3 knockout punch combo.
Of course it definitely doesn’t end there, in spite of the record’s apparent front-loading. Time and time again, Haim prove that they know their way around a chorus, and that they are happy to exploit or break away from genre conventions whenever it suits their needs. The album’s title track, kicking off the second half of the record, appears to mine a bit from the more urban pop era of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and works out better than you might expect. It’s no wonder the song was co-written by Jessie Ware, who has largely taken over where Jackson and Abdul once reigned. While press materials will tell you that there’s a bit of an R&B influence in Haim’s sound, it doesn’t really show up too often. When it does though, as on “Let Me Go” and “My Song 5,” it adds a deeper layer to what the band is capable of, and makes for some of the most impressive moments on the album. Both songs could be considered an homage to En Vogue, though only “My Song 5” and it’s heavy bass drum/tuba blare truly sets itself apart from the rest of the album. And that’s perfectly fine – most records could use such a great standout. Yet one of the most fascinating things about Days Are Gone is how it manages to unite all of the disparate elements and influences into one cohesive whole of an album. Credit goes to producer du jour Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Usher) for finding a way to make it work, and to Haim for never sounding anything less than original in spite of obvious nods to the past.
If Days Are Gone has a real weakness, it’s found in the lyrics, which often attempt to turn a breezy melody into something dark and “important.” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to write about serious issues against a lighthearted pop melody – artists do that all the time. Plus, it’s not like half of their songs are about depression, even though a few are about breakups and the fallout afterwards. Then again, “The Wire” is just about the most upbeat and kind song about the ending of a relationship that you’ll find these days. Where the issues emerge are in the words themselves, and not the topics. While the record has its fair share of creative wordplay, a close look at the lyrical content of most songs unveils a pattern of generalizations and bland phrasing that doesn’t hold up so well under scrutiny. All things considered, calling attention to such an issue given what Haim is out to accomplish can be viewed as petty and nitpicky, which is why it might be best to simply sit back, relax and let the melodies and hooks take you away. That is, essentially, what the sisters are doing on their album cover anyways.
Those in search of something different or innovative in a band probably won’t find Haim and Days Are Gone to their liking. What you do get from this record is a collection of strongly composed and confident songs that grab your attention and refuse to let go. Coming straight out of the gate with such excellence and precision is rather impressive, even if these sisters have been playing music since they became old enough to hold instruments in their hands. This is definitely something they’ve been building towards, and for all practical purposes they knock it out of the park.
Haim – The Wire
Haim – Falling
“How much do I not give a fuck? / Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up.” These are the words Kanye West spits out in the bridge to the song “On Sight,” the opening track off his new record Yeezus. It’s likely he’s addressing the media when saying them, however it makes a grand statement about the album as a whole. After a few records of ever-evolving but always smartly constructed and commercially accessible hip hop, West has had enough. 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a crowning achievement of the highest order, enough to be called one of (if not THE) greatest records of the century. Crafting a follow-up certainly wouldn’t be easy, but in many ways West makes it look like child’s play. Those looking for challenging and obtuse in their hip hop will find it on this new album in spades, and though he’s purposely tried to avoid releasing any singles, it’s going to happen anyways since “Black Skinhead” has caught on.
Unlike the boisterous arrangements and orchestral flourishes that populated his last record, Yeezus goes for the stripped down, attack dog approach. West is angry at the world it seems, and though he throws out a lot of hate, he rarely threatens actual violence, which has largely been the case since the beginning of his career and has helped to separate him from his peers. Still, women don’t fare well on this record, particularly on the extremely sexual “I’m In It,” which includes lines like, “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign,” and the cringe-worthy “Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce.” The only real “redemption” (if you can call it that) for women comes on the final track “Bound 2,” which is rumored to be written about his relationship with Kim Kardashian. Elsewhere he chooses to go anti-corporate advertising with a track like “New Slaves,” slamming corporations and any famous people (especially other rappers) accepting goods in exchange for promotions and shout outs. Ironic then how closely his pal Jay-Z is working with Samsung for the release of his new album. Also unlike his last album, West keeps the guests to a minimum on Yeezus, and several tracks feature only his voice, though with a fair number of samples and “producers” working on them. Frank Ocean shows up for a few seconds on “New Slaves,” and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon gets a couple of dramatic vocal workouts on “I Am A God,” “Hold My Liquor” and “I’m In It.” Though Kid Cudi shows up for a verse on “Guilt Trip,” the only other guests are up-and-coming Chicago rappers Chief Keef and King Louie, on “Hold My Liquor” and “Send It Up,” respectively. Everybody’s great, but West truly shines when he’s flying solo.
The divorce drama of “Blood on the Leaves” is the absolute greatest and most powerful piece on the entire album, buttressed by a Nina Simone vocal sample and a piece of TNGHT’s “R U Ready” that provide a profound mixture of sadness and venom. The acid-house squelch sample from Phuture’s 1987 classic “Acid Tracks” cut, which inspired a generation of rock bands from that era (Nine Inch Nails included) helps drive “On Sight” to an intense degree, and brings a certain synth element to this record that West has never attempted before. That sort of sound works well on a number of album tracks, but perhaps “I Am A God”‘s Blade Runner-esque haze with a Daft Punk production assist matches up best overall, somehow able to handle both a goofy eye-rolling moment like the line, “Hurry up with my damn croissants,” and the terrified, breathless screams that show up at the end. The only track that really breaks from the unified bare-bones production on this record is “Bound 2,” which smashes together The Ponderosa Twins’ “Bound” with Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s” and Wee’s “Aeroplane (Reprise)” in a melody that sounds like t was ripped straight out of one of West’s first two albums.
Still, the generally minimalist (down to the cover art) and rock n’ roll-like approach he takes on much of Yeezus is new territory for him to explore, and something that feels informed at least in part by some of the incredible, anti-commercial anger that has earned Death Grips the right kind of attention over the last couple years. Hip hop in general could use more of this type of boundary exploration. In this particular case the strategy is likely West’s attempt to feed his own ego; to prove that no matter what he does or how much he alienates his own fans, he will still be praised as the greatest thing to ever happen in music. The worst part about it is, to some degree he’s right. Very few, if any, rap artists can claim to have such an acclaimed and lucrative career over a 10-year period. The same can be said about almost every musician outside of that genre too. You hate to give such a self-aggrandizing figure even more ammunition, but full credit where credit is due, Yeezus is another near-masterpiece.
Kanye West – Hold My Liquor (ft. Chief Keef and Justin Vernon)
The ship should have sailed on Vampire Weekend a long time ago. As in, the wave of backlash should have hit them right around the release of their second (and previous) album Contra in early 2010 and doomed them to a slow descent into obscurity. Yet every so often, an artist or band finds a way to rise above the fray and continue to persevere in spite of everything. Leave it to the guys with Ivy League educations to solve that puzzle and go from a debut with one hit single to a sequel with three. That’s not even mentioning all the commercial licensing they signed off on, continuing to build their “brand” of cardigans, boat shoes and balaclavas to a predominantly young, white audience. Perhaps most incredible through all this is that the quality of the music they’ve been making has dipped very little, if at all. What started out as a ferocious nod to Afropop and in many respects Paul Simon has since evolved into something darker and more considerate while still largely maintaining a giddy, indie pop vibe. Perhaps that’s the main reason why so many people love this band – they take challenging topics, difficult issues and high class living and make them into very on-the-level, non-pretentious, fun songs. One minute you’ll be bobbing your head and singing along to the chorus of a song, and the next minute you’ll hear a lyric that forces you to grab your dictionary to try and figure out exactly what frontman Ezra Koenig was getting at with that reference. You’re learning new things while you listen, and in a sense that raises the collective conscience and intelligence level for all involved. For whatever reason, Vampire Weekend are working to leave society better than when they found it, and perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to find fault in just about everything they’re doing. Their new album Modern Vampires of the City is their strongest collection of tracks to date, but it’s also their darkest and most challenging, all of which can be seen as major positives.
Most bands like to throw a single out as the first track on their records, because it provides a nice gateway into the rest of the album. If they don’t go with a single, then it’s usually something upbeat and fun to at least put you in a good mood before moving forward. The last two Vampire Weekend albums have featured “Mansard Roof” and “Horchata” respectively, and both fit right into that traditional first track pattern. For Modern Vampires of the City, the opening song is “Obvious Bicycle,” a track that might best be described as a piano ballad. It’s not exactly a magnet of a song that sucks you in, and the lyrics make it even worse. “Oh you ought to spare your face the razor / Because no one’s gonna spare their time for you / You ought to spare the world your labor / It’s been twenty years and no one’s told the truth,” pretty much spell out deep depression and a complete mistrust of others. Yet there’s also stoicism and beauty in the way it’s composed, and the delicately harmonized, easy to remember chorus gives it a certain replay value you might not otherwise expect. The buzzy, pop-driven side of the band shows up starting with the single “Unbelievers,” certainly one of the album’s strongest moments and most addictive tracks. Yet it too features a rather dark take on things, emphasizing the idea that it can be tough today to truly figure out exactly who or what you believe in, religiously speaking and otherwise. “Girl you and I will die unbelievers, bound to the tracks of the train,” Koenig sings like there’s no escaping the fate that lies before him. There truly is no way of knowing if we’ve made the right decisions for our lives or our futures, which in many ways is crippling and could be considered a metaphorical freight train bearing down on us.
If you’re looking for a more “traditional” Vampire Weekend song, look no further than “Step,” which drops references to Angkor Wat, Dar es Salaam and Croesus amid sparkling harpsichords. Such challenging names and phrases are used in this case as more of a wink and a nod to their highly intelligent, “upper class” past rather than a legitimate attempt to go highbrow simply because they want to. The real deal behind this song is that the band borrows a couple of the main lines from the chorus from an unreleased track from the early ’90s called “Step to My Girl” by hip hop group Souls of Mischief. That track borrowed a saxophone melody from a 1972 song by Bread, which additionally Vampire Weekend also recreated with the harpsichord for this song. It’s fascinating how it all came together, and how the worlds of hip hop, smooth jazz and rock music from the past intersect via what sounds like a completely original and modern track. With that kind of history, maybe that is just a little more pretentious and challenging than it might otherwise appear. Similar things can be said for first single “Diane Young,” because while it is a whirlwind, roller coaster of a fun song complete with purposely goofy vocal modulations, there’s deeper meaning below the giddy surface. The subject matter is death, and the song title isn’t so much about a girl as it is, like the vocals, a slight modification of the more common expression, “dying young.” The lyrics support it, particularly with a reference to the Kennedy family, who are known for dying young. The music video also supports the idea, with a Last Supper-like scenario involving Jesus, who of course reportedly died at age 33.
Yet “Diane Young” also speaks to one of the overarching themes of Modern Vampires of the City, which is more about time running out on you than it is actual, physical death. Sure, death is certainly one of the possibilities of things to happen when the clock reaches zero, but it’s equally important to look at where the band is at in their personal lives. At the moment, they’re right at the border of what some might designate as “adulthood,” and all the “responsibilities” that come along with that. While there is no official hard line in the sand definition of what constitutes an adult, the ideas of getting married and starting a family certainly get wrapped up in that. In your own way, when you become an adult it marks the death of your youth, because there are new challenges and people to worry about and care for, taking away those times of freedom when you could do anything (…or anyone) you wanted to. Instead of staying out at some bar until 3 a.m. on a weeknight and showing up to work hungover a few hours later, you’re in bed by 11 and have to get up again at 4 because the baby is crying. The track “Don’t Lie” is actually all about that idea, and the quest to get in all the crazy and fun experiences you want to before making a full commitment to another person. “Young bloods can’t be settling down,” Koenig sings early on, but he’s also in love with a girl and feels just about ready to make that leap. The lines, “It’s the last time running through snow / Cause the fire can’t last and the winter’s cold,” speak to the need for love between two people, which should be fully appreciated, lest it be extinguished and you’re left alone in a harsh and loveless environment.
This path towards adulthood truly reaches its peak with the centerpiece of the record, “Hannah Hunt.” In many ways it seems like Vampire Weekend’s own maturity as a band gets unveiled in this track, like it’s something they’ve been purposely building towards for the last few years. Within this single ballad contains a multitude of sonic and textural innovations while the the lyrics and especially Koenig’s vocals overflow with emotion in a rousing and powerful way. The story line is a familiar one, in the sense that this could well be picking up on the lives of two characters we’ve spent time with previously in other Vampire Weekend songs on other albums. Here they’ve made the decision to escape from their own lives and hit the road to drive across the country in the hopes of starting over fresh. You may recognize this inclination as a more literal version of trying to outrun adulthood and other responsibilities that life hands us. Along the journey, this couple meets a gardener who talks about how plants move as they grow, and a man of faith who tries but fails to instill the narrator with a sense of personal accountability. Yet the real focus here is between these two people, our narrator and Hannah Hunt. Though their trip starts out promising enough, by the second verse of the song their relationship has grown cold, like the freezing beaches of Providence, Rhode Island which Hannah says she misses now that they’re on the opposite side of the country. And while the narrator wanders off to buy kindling for a fire, aka an attempt to get the flames of passion burning once more, Hannah chooses to burn a copy of the New York Times instead. The frustration builds, and eventually explodes outwards in the final 90 seconds of the song, going from a slow and meditative ballad to a soaring and gorgeous crescendo. Koenig’s voice follows suit, and he yells the chorus with such force you can almost hear tears rolling down his face: “If I can’t trust you then damn it, Hannah / There’s no future / There’s no answer / Though we live on the U.S. dollar / You and me, we got our own sense (cents?) of time.” It’s as harrowing as it is beautiful, and for those four minutes, that fictional clock through which we count the seconds and watch the hours stops completely.
While there are a few (perhaps arguably so, depending on personal interpretation) religious references in the first half of Modern Vampires of the City, it’s on the second half of the record where religion really come into topical focus. “I took your counsel and came to ruin / Leave me to myself, leave me to myself,” Koenig gripes at the start of “Everlasting Arms.” The song title itself alludes to the old hymn “Leaning on Everlasting Arms,” which is about the Day of Judgment. In his own way, Koenig spends the song passing judgment on God, trying to break off that relationship because it has caused him nothing but pain and suffering. An even greater indictment shows up on “Worship You,” which asks whether or not God deserves the love and praise given to him around the globe. There are references made to God’s “red right hand,” which play on the phrase of getting caught red-handed, implying guilt and wrongdoing. There’s also a political angle to the track, primarily dealing with the Middle East and Israel and the supposed protection offered to the Holy Land. “Finger Back” deals with similar issues, though the focus in this case is more on the cycle of violence in the region and how religion is the main reason for many conflicts. That also ties into the sharply depressing but stylistically intriguing penultimate track “Hudson,” which uses the historical context of explorer Henry Hudson and his death as a springboard to envision a post-apocalyptic New York hellscape in the years following the nuclear holocaust that is World War III.
Looking solely at the lyrics on Modern Vampires of the City and attempting to delve into the meanings and intentions behind the songs can make everything seem like a truly depressing march through sludge. The themes are dark and unpleasant, from the ticking clock of youth and life running towards its ultimate finish to the anger towards God and religion, and you might expect the music itself to match those tones. Yet that’s not the case by any means. The band has come a long way from their debut, but they haven’t lost their ability to write compelling melodies and hooks that grab your ear and refuse to let go. Listen to this album enough and you’ll find that a different track stands out each time, even some of the slower ones like “Ya Hey” and “Step” will give you a reason to keep coming back for more. A very lyrically bleak song like “Finger Back” is only dark and depressing if you can fully comprehend what’s being sung about, and Koenig’s rapid fire vocal delivery paired with a bouncy melody seem to suggest upbeat pop more than anything else. And that’s really the crux of this record as a whole: it deals with a lot of heavy issues, but always with a little wink and a nod to let you know that it’s not all bad. That sense of relatability and inclusiveness which gets developed while also ushering in a new found maturity makes this Vampire Weekend’s strongest effort to date. For a band that spends so much time on this record worrying about getting older and the proverbial deaths that go along with it, there’s a terrific amount of irony in the fact that they’re only getting better with age. It’s certainly something most other artists should look at with envy.
Before you read any of this, do me a favor: Take a close look at this photo. Notice any similarities between the people depicted? If you don’t, I suspect you’re blind. On the left is Jehenny Beth, singer for the band Savages. On the right is Ian Curtis, singer for the band Joy Division. Two different genders and two completely different people, however they could potentially be fraternal twins. Sure, Curtis died more than four years before Beth was born (under the name Camille Berthomier), but if you believe in reincarnation perhaps this connection is much deeper than skin deep. Joy Division was an all-male post-punk band from England that became well-known for their dark focus and intensity, particularly on stage. Savages are an all-female post-punk band from England that’s becoming more and more well-known for their dark focus and intensity, particularly on stage. In terms of label dealings, Joy Division signed with RCA, only to later buy out their contract because they were unhappy with how things were going. Despite Curtis calling Factory Records founder Tony Wilson “a fucking cunt” to his face and then repeatedly insulting him on stage one night, the band would eventually sign to Factory, a label best known for letting its artists do whatever they wanted and splitting all profits 50-50. Savages view record labels as evil, but a necessary evil. With Beth still entangled in label dealings from her last band with boyfriend Johnny Hostile, she pushed the idea of not signing to a label until their debut album was finished. Ultimately Silence Yourself is being distributed via Matador Records, in conjunction with Beth and Hostile’s own small imprint Pop Noire. “I believe artists make their own success,” Beth said after signing to Matador. “No record labels are my heroes today.” I don’t doubt that Curtis would have said something dramatically similar were he alive to survey the music scene in today’s digital age. There’s a rebellious, wild and angry spirit that runs through both of their world views, if you can define a person via their interview quotes. But what does all of this mean? A pessimist might view the similarities between bands as a series of coincidences that amount to nothing. An optimist could call this the second coming and the rise of a new band set to change the musical landscape once more for the better. Let’s just hope this new story doesn’t end the way the earlier one did.
To be perfectly clear though, Savages are not Joy Division, even if my first listen to Silence Yourself felt strangely similar to the first time I listened to Unknown Pleasures. That is to say, it felt like a door to an entirely new world of music had just been opened up. Unlike back in the late ’70s and early ’80s however, this sort of post-punk sound isn’t new or novel anymore. In fact, it’s downright out of style at the moment. Of course this is the sort of band that revels in contradiction and doing whatever the fuck they want without a care if it’s in style or out of style. As such, listening to their record can feel a bit like playing a “spot the influence” game. The Joy Division (and similarly Gang of Four) is there thanks to the extremely present and dominating work of bassist Ayse Hassan. Siouxsie and the Banshees comparisons run abound because Beth’s vocals often resemble that of Siouxie Sioux’s, though in more modern terms you can pick up on some early PJ Harvey or Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs when she escalates to a higher and more shriek-filled range. Gemma Thompson’s piercing and rusty chainsaw-sounding guitar work fondly recalls bands like Public Image Ltd, Bauhaus and Converge, while the incredible aggression through which Fay Milton attacks her drum kit draws power from krautrock like Faust and Can, with a bit of Sleater-Kinney era Janet Weiss thrown in for good measure. Savages sound at least a little bit like all of these bands, yet they still manage to break free and expose a sound that feels intense and unique as you’re listening to it. Such a quality is so rare in music these days it can easily give one the impression that this band is out to save rock and roll. They certainly play like it, and though it shines through the record, their raw nerve and extreme ferocity on stage are what they’ve built their reputation on. Simply put, Savages live up to their name.
Silence Yourself starts in an interesting fashion, with audio from the 1977 John Cassavetes film Opening Night. The scene in question is a crucial one, and comes about 50 minutes into the film. In it, the lead character of actress Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) sits down for a rather informal meeting at the apartment of the woman who wrote the script for the play she’s appearing in. This older, wiser writer Sarah (Joan Blondell) begins their conversation after some pleasantries by asking the actress how old she is. The actress dodges the question repeatedly and never gives an official answer, yet insists that she’s having trouble connecting to the part that’s been written for her because the character is so much older than her actual age. Of course the audio for the intro to the song “Shut Up” and the rest of the album gets cut off before the actual point of the scene is reached, leaving the lingering question of age hanging in the air. Yet lest you be confused, age is not the point of the scene, nor does it have anything to do with Savages’ music. No, the point is about fighting against perceptions and allowing for enough fluidity to maintain your own versatility. As Myrtle says a minute later in the same scene, “Once you’re convincing in a part, the audience accepts you as that.” Her concern is that once she plays this older woman character, she’ll be forever fixed in the minds of audiences as a senior citizen and it will change her career trajectory in the wrong direction. Similarly, Savages refuse to be easily categorized or boxed in. They’re about outward rebellion and an innate desire to turn the music world on its head. Thanks to the primal, uncompromising brutality of this debut album, they’ve done exactly that. At times it’s enough to shake you to your very core.
Just reading the band’s song titles like “Shut Up,” “No Face” and “Hit Me” can go a long way towards telling you what to expect from the Silence Yourself listening experience. And boy, “experience” is the right word to use, considering the physicality that blindly attacks you at every turn. As “I Am Here” creeps along down the dimly lit hallways of your mind, the chorus suddenly comes at you like a punch to the gut in a momentary flash of rage. These spikes in noise and aggression come to a head in the final minute of the track, when the intensity finally builds to a release point and Beth howls the song title over and over like a mantra as the pace gets faster and the noise louder. By the end there is no doubt that she has in fact arrived and made her presence known. If a close listen with good headphones doesn’t give you goosebumps, perhaps you should check your pulse. A very similar set-up and execution happens on the single “Husbands.” In that case all the band members steamroll ahead at full speed the entire time, only taking a momentary respite in the chorus as Beth moves from a whisper to a shriek while once again repeating the song title. The effective point of it in this case is to destroy the meaning of a word that many equate with marriage, love, family and security by creating a true nightmare scenario. It’s equally easy to believe that the track “Hit Me” is all about the horrors of domestic violence were you to only think of the lyrics and not the context behind them. The 100 second beating this song will give to your ears (it was recorded entirely live in the studio, by the way) was actually written from the perspective of porn star Belladonna, about a violent scene she agreed to take part in for the sake of sex, art and masochism. “I took a beating tonight / And that was the best I ever had,” she sings, consciously aware of the choice and refusing to play the victim. Provocative and button-pushing as the subject matter might seem, it’s not the point Savages are trying to make with their music. The ultimate goal is liberation and empowerment, even if that means crossing the lines of physical and psychological pain to achieve it. Sometimes it’s the only way we can learn and grow.
The emotions on Silence Yourself finally reach their true breaking point at two spots on the album, both of which wrap up their respective sides of the LP. It’s equally interesting to know that they’re also the songs that break from an attack dog-like format and attempt to truly inject the record with something more thoughtful and progressive. While the haunting and moody instrumental “Dead Nature” might be considered by some to be the singular throwaway track sitting at the center of the album, its actual purpose is to serve as a cooler and buffer before the onslaught of the second half begins. Call it the musical eye of a hurricane and an opportunity to take a breather. The true moment of power hits two minutes before that though, on “Waiting for a Sign.” That 5.5 minute dirge is perhaps the most terrifying white knuckle ride on an album full of them, even as it avoids the immediacy and hooks of everything else. As it plods along led by Hassan’s rumbling bass and Beth’s manic vocal, the final two minutes of this ballad are handed off to Thompson, who takes the old Beatles adage “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” literally, only in this case there’s nothing gentle about it. Thompson’s guitar is crying buckets of tears, and in turn squeezes our ears so tightly it’s difficult not to connect with that and break down right along with it. While the album’s closing ballad “Marshall Dear” doesn’t quite elicit the same strong emotional reaction as other tracks, it is important to the overall record because of what it introduces. Considering the blitz attack that most of Savages’ music so far subscribes to, it’s easy to predict that their sound has a limited shelf life that might stay viable for another couple albums at best. What’s hinted at on the final track is a continued evolution of the band as they incorporate more instruments such as piano and clarinet. In addition to being an incredible singer Beth is also a classically trained pianist. Though that skill is used rather sparingly here, it hints at a larger vision and destiny at play for a band that likely won’t take their own advice and silence themselves any time soon.
Rhye is a group born out of mystery. The duo purposely tries to fall deep into the crevice of the unknown, choosing to let their music speak for itself rather than tossing out names and faces and back stories. Leave everything as simple and clear-cut as possible, and create your own bond with these songs. Of course, in today’s technology-heavy era, remaining anonymous isn’t something you can do for long, which is probably why a couple months before the March release of their album Woman, things started to come into focus. Rhye is Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal, two guys that met in Denmark when working with the Copenhagen-based group Quadron. They became fast friends, but didn’t actually pursue a project together until they both found themselves living in Los Angeles for varying reasons. The primary cause of Hannibal’s relocation from Denmark was a woman, while Milosh is a Toronto native who went to L.A. to try and help his solo music career take flight. For two musicians who had some previous pedigree working as solo artists or in other groups, it’s fascinating that Rhye was suddenly the thing that earned them both quite a bit more attention than they were otherwise used to. It only took a couple singles (“Open” and “The Fall”) released in 2012 to get people talking and naturally curious about who was behind them. The very sensual music videos for both singles and an EP released last fall continued to build anticipation for their debut full length as well.
Perhaps the main reason Rhye has gotten so much attention since they first emerged is due to the right combination of Milosh’s vocals and ’90s R&B-style minimalist instrumentals that are very “of the moment” thanks to artists like Frank Ocean and Miguel. This is sexy music for a large collection of people who are really starting to experience their own sexual awakening. The xx have played a major role in bringing such sensuality in music to the forefront, and Rhye’s record Woman plays to that crowd perfectly with unabashed intimacy and pure, love-spiked intention. It wouldn’t work nearly as well if Milosh didn’t have the voice of an angel that’s so syrupy and smooth you might mistake it for female if you knew nothing about the duo. Comparisons to Sade have been rampant, and they’d be a lot more difficult to accept if they weren’t so spot-on. That basic androgyny has probably helped with the band’s success more than anyone realizes, because it makes the songs that much more malleable to the human ear – you’re free to interpret how these songs apply to you and your own life without gender bias getting in the way. If a guy wants to imagine a girl is singing a song like “Verse” to him or vice versa, nothing is too much of a stretch and the less you know going in the easier such things become. The lyrics are never gender specific either, nor are they sexually explicit, which only serves to fuel your own imagination to help fill in the blanks as you see best. In a case such as this, the vagaries are commendable. All you really need to enjoy this record is the capacity to love another human being, and that accounts for about 99.9% of the population.
Not that 99.9% of the population is going to engage with and get sucked into Woman. It’s not a perfect record, and there are a couple small misfires amid the excellence. “One of Those Summer Days” pretty much comes as advertised, however its beautiful and hazy drift feels out of place on an album that often has a slight groove going for it. Somehow for those 4.5 minutes everything just stops and you can envision yourself laying out by the pool on a warm, clear day as the sunlight shimmers brightly off the water. There’s no structure or hook to the track, and the saxophone solo that pops up feels just a touch softcore porn soundtrack in nature. In other words, it’s all surface beauty with no depth or substance behind it. The title track, which is saved for last, has a similar aesthetic to it. Milosh repeats the title over and over again in different tonal fluctuations and syllabic stretches while a slow and simplistic synth melody holds steadfast. Horns and strings attempt to resuscitate the staid concept, but ultimately don’t do enough to make it worth the time and effort put in.
Still, eight out of the album’s ten tracks are top notch, and a few like “The Fall,” “Open,” “Last Dance” and “Major Minor Love” get even better the more you listen to them. There’s something truly special about this record, and it’s an indefinable quality that only really grabs hold of you in the quieter or more intimate moments of your life. Put on some headphones and really focus on how these songs are being created with such spare arrangements, and you’ll quickly find yourself wrapped inside Woman‘s tender embrace. Better yet, make it the soundtrack to your next make out session and witness how effective it can be at setting the right mood. Rhye is a truly talented band with two truly talented auteurs inspired by the love permeating their own lives. It’d make you jealous of such intense passion if the songs themselves weren’t excellent companions even on a lonely night without someone to hold you close. We don’t need to know who the people are behind them, just that they’ll be there for us no matter what our desires might be. It’d be nice if more records had that quality within them.
Rhye – Open
The small subgenre of music known to most as post-rock seems to have run its course. That’s not to suggest that the steadied and beautiful hands that craft such intricate melodies have stopped doing what they do best. No, like any particular style of music, there are ebbs and flows, and what was once popular suddenly becomes shunned by the fickle masses as they search for the “next big thing.” You take a look at bands like Sigur Ros and Mogwai, and simply glancing at their catalogues will show you how the quality of their recordings appeared to drop compared to their earlier, late ’90s efforts. Of course the more you create the more material there is for comparison and criticism. Had there been more Nirvana or Beatles records, maybe their legacies wouldn’t have heen as strong as they are today. And while some of the disdain for many modern-day post-rock efforts stems from recycling old sounds and failing to make forward evolutionary progress, nobody seems to be entirely sure where to go next. A band like Swans certainly qualifies for the post-rock label, but have always had a large following among heavy metal, industrial and post-punk fans too, and being able to keep toes dipped into multiple pools has benefited them greatly. It’s helped their new record The Seer rank among some of 2012’s best. But when you break the genre down to its basest instincts, the ultimate goal is to make primarily instrumental music that speaks to our emotions and sends chills down our spines. You don’t even need to be original if what you’re creating pushes the right buttons. That principle applies to all music, with the understanding that it’s better to be good than cool.
In a sense, with their return from a hiatus along with their first album of new material in 10 years, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are filling a void we didn’t know was there in the first place. Though their music has little to no vocals save for the occasional sound clip, the band’s mission is far more politically oriented than you might expect. They’ve never shyed away from commenting on world issues, and the collective’s unofficial frontman Efrim Menuck has been called an anarchist on more than one occasion. They insert themselves into this commentary and these situations even though you won’t hear it addressed in the songs that they play. Well, as they argue (and it’s one of the reasons they took nearly a decade off), their music is created based on both physical and political pain happening around the world. They vanished about a year after 9/11 and as the U.S. was starting to become involved with Iraq and Afghanistan. You’d suspect these things would inspire the band, and their 2002 album Yanqui U.X.O. was its own political statement, with missiles on the album cover and interior artwork drawing connections between major record labels (AOL Time-Warner, BMG, Universal) and various arms manufacturers. There’d be plenty more political fodder and terror to draw from moving forwards for the band, but they chose to explore side projects and other avenues of creation for awhile. Now with the U.S. all but out of Iraq and Afghanistan wrapping up as well, one would hope that a period of relative peace was right around the corner. Yet Godspeed came back to life in late 2010 bigger and bolder than ever, though existing solely as a touring entity. Then came an October surprise. At the start of the month they announced there’d be a new album called Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, and that it would be released in two weeks’ time. They dropped that bomb on everyone.
Yet GY!BE would save their biggest shocker for those that actually listened to the new album. They haven’t changed their sound or done something drastic and unexpected. Quite the opposite in fact. These new songs sound more focused, beautiful and impressive than just about anything they’ve ever done. Nobody quite sounded like them during their initial run in the late ’90s and early ’00s, and nobody still sounds like them today. To those that would say this is a classic case of absence making the heart grow fonder, there’s an equally compelling argument to be made that expectations have only grown for the band in their time away. Just take groups like Pixies or Pavement as examples. Both went away for awhile and left some seriously important and great music in their wake. Upon their return, they chose to tour and only play their old stuff. Pavement has once more vanished into the ether, a band of myth and legend, while Pixies continue to tour and rake in cash almost exclusively because they can. But for so many success stories that don’t want to or are afraid to mess with their back catalogue and legacies, there are the ones that push forwards and hope for the best. Dinosaur Jr. and Guided By Voices are two good examples of bands with solid second halves of their careers (so far), while grunge stalwarts like Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden seem to be having the opposite effect with their “comeback” records. But getting back to Godspeed, perhaps they avoided some of the backlash that’s associated with comeback records because of the quick turnaround they pulled. Announcing a new album and then immediately selling it at shows followed by a traditional store release two weeks later didn’t give anybody time to react. With prejudging almost entirely removed from the equation, the collective listening experience has been tempered and thoughtful and understandably gobsmacked at how excellent these songs really are.
It’s a huge help that two of the songs on Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! are tracks the band was playing around with since 2003. There are live recordings of “Mladic” (formerly known as “Albanian”) and “We Drift Like Worried Fire” (formerly known as “Gamelan”) from the pre-hiatus period, making their studio recorded inclusion here a satisfactory note for long-time fans. What’s most fascinating is how much both of the songs evolved due to time and the addition of new players. They’ve kept many of the same parts so they’re recognizable as the same songs from years ago, but so much has also been re-imagined and re-purposed to give these songs a fuller and more dynamic feel. “Mladic” is heavier and more visceral than ever, slowly building over its 20 minutes with Middle Eastern-style guitars before hitting its stride in the final seven minutes with pure noise and intense orchestral changes. Rarely have GY!BE gone so dark, but it’s also immensely important that they do take those emotions to heart as part of a healthy balance with the lighter fare. It’s an exploration and ultimately expulsion of their demons, filtered through the glasses of an influential band like Swans. Once all that hand wringing finishes in dramatic fashion, relief and calm take over and provide solemn guidance through the rest of the record. “We Drift Like Worried Fire” is positively placid by comparison, and in fact shows off the band’s tender and minimalist side. Starting with precious few notes on a guitar, the track accrues more and more elements to create a lush stew of infinitely measurable beauty that is likely to make the boys in Sigur Ros jealous. At that point in time, about 10 minutes in, a peak is hit and there’s a sudden explosion of joyous emotion and sonic glory that is just about enough to restore your faith in humanity whether you lost it or not. The whole world suddenly fades away so you can be fully present in that moment because it is a knockout punch.
Naturally, the two shorter tracks on Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, clocking in at 6.5 minutes apiece, can feel like stopgaps compared to the duo of big showcase 20 minute monstrosities. If you buy the album on vinyl, “Their Helicopters’ Sing” and “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable” don’t even make the main 12″ but are instead relegated to a separate 7″. That doesn’t make them outcasts though, and if you buy a digital or CD copy of the record their placement at tracks two and four creates a nice buffer between the longer pieces and allows the group to continue to throw curveballs and variations in their already distinct sound. Both tracks are drones that are positively hypnotic when listened to with eyes closed and a clear mind. “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable” shows off a little more instability than its nearly equal length counterpart, but both bear an eerie sonic resemblance to some great moments on the F#A#∞ record. It’s just another great reminder that no other band has quite the mastery of sound or has carved such a distinct place for themselves in the world of post-rock. No matter the state of the genre right now or in the future, there’s very little that can change the power and emotional wallop this record packs into its four tracks and 53 minutes. We’ve missed you, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Welcome back.
There’s something incomprehensively magnetic about Tame Impala. Identifying exactly what makes the Australian band’s music so compelling is a challenge in itself, primarily because common sense says that psych-pop songs without much in the way of song structure and choruses shouldn’t go down so easily and smoothly. We’ve been trained on verse-chorus-verse, and anything else almost always falls into the “experimental” category. Then again, bands like The Flaming Lips and MGMT have achieved massive popularity while doing things their own way and going completely off the reservation more than a few times. If they can do it, why not Tame Impala too? They’ve even been working with legendary psych-pop producer Dave Fridmann, the man behind The Soft Bulletin and Oracular Spectacular, for their 2010 debut full length Innerspeaker as well as this new one Lonerism. The way in which he shapes Tame Impala’s sound into something more commercially viable can’t be ignored, though his magic is nothing compared to frontman Kevin Parker’s influence, which is so immense you might consider this band a solo project with a bunch of hired hands to recreate the songs in a live setting. Of course some of the other guys in the band might take offense to such a statement, but on any given song Parker is responsible for vocals, guitar, bass, drums and keys, which is essentially everything. He even reduces Fridmann’s normal job of in-studio producing to that of giving him the unmastered studio recordings and asking for judicial editing and a little bit of polish. It becomes an effortless blend of DIY home recorded aesthetic and present day glossy production, which is one of Lonerism‘s biggest charms.
While there is a certain modern aspect to the record, so much of it sounds like vintage ’60s psychedelia that under the right circumstances you might be able to fool a bunch of people into thinking it’s directly from that era. That task becomes even easier because Parker’s voice has enough John Lennon in it to convincingly present songs as some of the former Beatle’s long lost solo recordings. The day-glo vocal harmonies and quirky bounce of “Mind Mischief” for example feels cut from the same hangdog cloth Lennon often adopted, and the swirling shift it takes towards the end is gloriously “A Day in the Life”-like in nature. But Parker’s talents go beyond simple and unavoidable mimicry because he’s able to consistently find ways to challenge our expectations while still hanging onto a very real pop sensibility. Listen to the six minute swirl of “Apocalypse Dreams” to get a real taste of how he’ll change things up just as you’re starting to get comfortable. Instead of being disappointed by his yanking of the rug from underneath our feet, where things head next are almost always equal to or greater than whatever preceeded it. In other words, you’ve got to trust Parker has your best interests at heart and follow him into the darkness. There’s even a song near the end of the record that explains quite perfectly how you should approach these tracks: “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control.” That sentiment makes “Music to Walk Home By” music you can walk home by, and “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The two songs on the album that really break free from any influences and previous work are the trunk-swinging stomp of “Elephant” and the gloriously strange drift of “Sun’s Coming Up.” Both stand out for completely different reasons as they represent Tame Impala at their most focused and unfocused. The former engineers an energetic, bass-heavy groove that’s jarring compared to everything else on the album, but it hits harder and is more addictive than anything else that comes before and after it. The latter track closes the record and might as well be two songs in one – a waltzy, dramatic piano ballad at the start and a shimmering, psychedelic guitar instrumental at the end. That imbalance doesn’t really do it any favors, but it does make for an excellent way to close out the record. All the other songs fly by on a breeze, so this gentle application of the brakes prepares us for the end. We’ve had all night to play, and now it’s a race against the impending day. “Sun’s coming up now / I guess it’s over,” Parker sings wistfully as the last lines of the album. For all the disappointment and heartbreak that’s chronicled throughout Lonerism, somehow this one cuts the deepest. Perhaps that’s because we too don’t want it to be over. Buried beneath the sadness is also triumph – the realization that the record you just heard was a masterful display of what modern psych-pop can and should be. Tame Impala have expanded and refined the core sound of their debut into a confident work of art worthy of being named one of 2012’s finest.