Faronheit | A Chicago Centric Music Blog

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Tag: cloud nothings

Show Review: Cloud Nothings + The Courtneys [Thalia Hall; Chicago; 12/14/18]



We’re quickly approaching the two-year anniversary of The Courtneys’ excellent sophomore album II, and they’re still touring in support of it. Their commitment is admirable, and the reward is hopefully a wealth of new fans eager to hear more from the Canadian trio. A stop at Thalia Hall in Chicago on Friday night actually marked the end of their tour with Cloud Nothings, so they celebrated with a wildly fun performance that perfectly balanced their winning charm and sadder sensibilities.

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Lollapalooza 2017: Preview Guide


So you’re headed to Lollapalooza. Whether it’s your first time or your thirteenth (points to self), spending four days in the heart of Grant Park is never easy, but if done properly, is always a ton of fun. And while there are plenty of activities to do and things to consume, the real reason you’re there is to see and hear some of your favorite bands and artists perform as well as maybe make some new discoveries. So in between waiting in line to get in and waiting in line to get a beer and waiting in line to use the restroom and waiting in line to get food, you could realistically catch a good 8-10 performances each day. The punishment on your body won’t be great, but the rewards will likely be worth it when all is said and done. Whether you’ve already planned out your Lolla weekend or are simply going to play it by ear, it helps to at least have an idea of some of the top artists for every hour of every day. This guide is here to help! After the jump is a roadmap to four days of festival fun that will hopefully ensure a quality experience with fewer challenges and scheduling conflicts.

But first! A couple of annual tips about how to manage your time at Lollapalooza, from somebody who hasn’t missed a single day since 2005. First and foremost – prepare for weather! Coat yourself in sunscreen and bug spray before even leaving the house. You’ll thank me later. Bring a poncho, because it’s probably gonna rain at some point. As I’m writing this, the forecast says rain on Thursday and Saturday, so you’ll want to stay dry as best as you can. Wear comfortable but disposable shoes. If it rains at all over the four days, Grant Park will turn into a mud-filled swamp, and your shoes may not survive, so don’t wear your new, flashy sneakers. Don’t pick flip flops or heels, either. You’ll likely be on your feet for several hours each day, and the last thing you’ll want is to feel like your feet are going to fall off. Speaking of which, don’t forget to rest every now and then! Get off your feet by finding a comfortable spot to sit in the grass or dirt. It can be near a stage so you don’t miss anything except maybe some sweaty bodies rubbing up against one another. Just be aware that if you stand the entire time and keep walking between stages, your body will take a huge beating and each subsequent day will be a greater struggle than the one before it. Tons of water helps too, so drink more of that than you’re comfortable with and use the park water stations to keep refilling containers for free. Lastly, a word about stage locations. The Grant Park, Lake Shore and Perry’s stages are all on one side of the park. The Bud Light, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, BMI and Pepsi stages are on the other side. It is about a 15 minute walk from one end of the park to the other. Make sure your daily strategy doesn’t involve too much back and forth otherwise you’ll get worn down fast. Similarly, if you want to see the start of a set taking place on the opposite side of the park, you’ll need to head out early to make it in time. With good planning and everything in moderation, you too can survive Lollapalooza weekend without taking a trip to the medical tent or at least feeling like death for days afterward. Now then, let’s get to that day-by-day artist guide!

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Listmas 2014: The Top 50 Albums of the Year [#30-21]


As we reach the halfway point in our countdown, let me say a few quick words about D’Angelo. As you’ve hopefully heard, he released his long-awaited second album Black Messiah a couple of weeks ago, during a time when many in the music world had already released their Top Albums of 2014 lists, or at the very least were on the verge of doing so. The Top 50 Albums list that we’re counting down right now was actually all locked in during the first week of December. Really it’s just the writing that’s holding up everything being published in a more immediate fashion. So like those other music media outlets, I’m officially ruling that Black Messiah missed the unofficial cut off date and will not be found on this list. If you’ll recall, a similar thing happened with Beyonce last year, as her self-titled album came out a couple of weeks before Christmas. That turned out to be one of the best albums of 2013, to the point where I almost felt it’d be reasonable to include it on this year’s list since it missed out last year. Actually that D’Angelo record is one of 2014’s best as well, which also makes its lack of representation here just a touch sad. So I’ll advocate for it right now. Please check it out and pick up a copy. Of course I’ll also recommend that you pick up copies of all the albums on this Top 50 list. In case you missed the previous entries, here once again are links to #50-41 and #40-31. We’re continuing to chug along here, and I’m now pleased to present the next segment, #30-21!

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Listmas 2014: The Top 50 Songs of the Year [#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!

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Pitchfork Music Festival 2014: Saturday in Photos


Join me after the jump for a collection of photos that I took on Day 2 (Saturday) of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Photos are arranged by set time. They are also available in higher resolution on Facebook. Check out my full recap of the day, as well as the rest of the festival coverage by going here.

Note: There are no photos of Saturday headliners Neutral Milk Hotel featured here at their request.

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Pitchfork Music Festival 2014: Saturday Recap


After a relatively calm and relaxing start to the weekend on Friday courtesy of artists like Sharon Van Etten and Sun Kil Moon, Saturday at the Pitchfork Music Festival found quite a bit more rhythm and energy and was all the better for it. Not only that, but with plenty of hip hop, R&B, electronica and loud rock bands to go around, it was also the most widely diverse day of the weekend. As with Friday, I attempted to scatter myself around Union Park as much as possible to get a little sample of just about everything. On the whole,the day was rather delightful. Here’s my recap of how it all went down.

I skipped out on the first couple of bands on Saturday so I could finish some writing and post my recap from Friday. That may not have been the best idea as it turns out, because I got word from a few different people that sets from Twin Peaks, Ka and Circulatory System were all incredible and some of the day’s highlights. Of course there were plenty of highlights later in the day too if you knew where to look for them. I arrived on the premises in time to catch most of Wild Beasts‘ performance, which made for a lovely start to Saturday. Their dark and at times intense melodies thankfully translated well to the sunny outdoor festival setting, and much of the crowd danced along accordingly. Singer Hayden Thorpe looked a little toasty wearing a denim suit, and given the highly sexual nature of many of the band’s songs, if he didn’t mind the warmth perhaps leather would have been more appropriate. While a majority of the set list focused on their most recent album Present Tense, they did incorporate a fair amount of older material as well, including a glorious version of “Bed of Nails.”

The last time Cloud Nothings performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival, their set got rained out about halfway through. They were in the final couple of minutes of an extended jam session when the power was cut to avoid a serious safety hazard. The band finished the song anyways, even though you could barely hear them. It was an incredible and memorable moment, one of the best in the history of the festival. Now two years later, the band still seems angry they weren’t allowed to finish their set back then. They come out like a blitzkrieg attack and throw everything they have into a rage-filled performance that doesn’t let up for more than 45 minutes. It drives the crowd into such a frenzy that security is forced to kick all of the press photographers out of the pit within two minutes due to an excess of crowd surfing and moshing. I didn’t visibly see anybody get injured during that set, but wouldn’t be surprised in the least if it happened. Still, it was an incredible display of aggression and release, which I think everyone desperately needed. Mark them down as one of Saturday’s best, no question about it.

Because he’s a member of my Class of 2014, and because his debut EP Worth is….worth your time, I stopped by the Blue Stage for a bit to see how Mas Ysa (Thomas Arsenault) was doing. For the most part, his set was going relatively smoothly. His setup was basically an army of varying different electronic machines on a table, and he spent the majority of time pushing buttons and twisting knobs to get the particular beats and sounds desired. Not the most exciting thing to watch, though Arsenault made things significantly more interesting simply by his behavior and facial expressions. When he’d be playing around with various sounds, more often than not this expression of extreme pain came across his face. Of course he wasn’t in any actual pain, it was just how the music was affecting him on an emotional level. You could hear it in his vocals too, which were also modulated with who knows what sorts of effects that emphasized his upper register while giving off the impression he was singing underwater. Those vocal moments were also when he broke away from his table of electronics to bring a greater physicality to the performance and the points he was trying to get across. My only real issue was that it didn’t always sound like Arsenault was singing on-key the whole time. Maybe it was the modulation effects or maybe it’s his own unique yelping style, but there were moments when I genuinely said to myself, “That doesn’t sound quite right.” All the instrumental stuff was fine and great, it was just the vocals every now and then that threw me off.

Speaking of throwing people off, Pusha T wasn’t exactly doing himself any favors by starting his set 35 minutes late. Apparently his DJ failed to show up on time, and that was the cause of the delay. As a result, he did his best to make the most of the 25 minutes left for his time slot. He raced through track after track, often cutting each one off after a verse or two, just to ensure he touched on the maximum amount of his catalogue. In spite of everything, it was a pretty decent set, almost as if Pusha was working extra hard to knock it out of the park to make up for the earlier issues. It makes me wonder though how much better it might have been had he used those first 35 minutes and actually performed full tracks instead of only giving us a little taste of each. Maybe next time.

tUnE-yArDs remains a formidable live act, as Merrill Garbus and her band continue to grow with each new record. When she performed at Pitchfork a couple of years ago, she was trapped on the smaller Blue Stage in the early afternoon, yet still managed to deliver one of the weekend’s finest and most remarkable performances. Now graduated to a big stage with a late afternoon slot and a gigantic crowd, she sought to make the most of it. Honestly, while I loved just about every second of the show, it also disappointed me a little. She’s touring in support of the new album Nikki Nack, and devoted much of the set list to songs from that record, which quite frankly isn’t her best. It’s not a bad record by any stretch, nor was her performance, but I feel almost like her ferocity has somewhat diminished. Like, before she was an underdog, but now she’s the alpha and is taking a victory lap. As little as a year or two ago, she would build almost every single song using loops, would go beyond what’s on record to have fun in extended jam sessions, and would invigorate the crowd by yelling things like, “Do you wanna live?” There wasn’t much of any of those things this time around, and now I kind of miss them. Her voice is as powerful as ever though, and the songs are still amazing, not to mention there’s all sorts of polyrhythms and crazy percussion. The point is, there’s still tons to love about tUnE-yArDs, just maybe not quite as much as there was before.

Saturday was a big day for my Class of 2014, and I was particularly excited to see how Kelela would fare in a festival environment. She makes some fascinating experimental R&B, which is nice because it breaks away from some of the more standard stuff that gets the bulk of the attention these days. Backed by only a DJ, she worked the stage with total confidence and control, sticking largely to tracks from her Cut 4 Me mixtape. That brought a different sort of energy to her set – one that was equal parts upbeat, sensual and intimate. The ability to conjure something like that up on a sunny, late afternoon outdoor stage is a rare quality, and it attracted more people over time like moths to a flame. That, and her smooth, syrupy vocals just made you feel good all over. I was quite impressed, mostly that she truly lived up to the hype that goes along with being a promising young artist. Whatever she does next, it should be pretty great.

There’s not a whole lot that I want to say about Danny Brown‘s set, mostly because I wasn’t paying close attention throughout most of it. When I did, all evidence suggested that the crowd was having a great time. When I say great, I mean GREAT. Like hands waving, jumping around, smiling and laughing sort of great. Perhaps that’s because Brown was powering through all of his most excessive and salacious material, while completely ignoring the more introspective and sincere tracks in his catalogue. That’s understandable given the summer festival setting, but also a bit shallow on the whole. You can celebrate with “Smokin’ and Drinkin'” and get into a “Kush Coma,” but those are the favorite topics of almost every other rapper out there. Brown could have separated himself from that world for at least part of the set, and it would have made a great difference. Instead, he told the crowd he wanted to hang out and party. Not much wrong with that. Not much right either.

What can be said about St. Vincent‘s performance at Pitchfork? Nothing really. Over the course of the last several years, Annie Clark has become a powerhouse of rock and roll. Put a guitar in her hands and watch her conquer even the most apathetic of music lovers. Following her highly choreographed live show and tour with David Byrne in 2012 and 2013, the 2014 version of St. Vincent has incorporated many of those same ideas into her sets. There are certain routines for most songs, followed very precisely by Clark and her bandmates. It lacks a certain spontaneity, but looks pretty cool. Besides there’s still plenty of room for freestyling, particularly on the guitar solos, which she absolutely ripped through on tracks like “Rattlesnake” and “Marrow.” Then there’s the slow descent into madness that is the show-stopping finale of “Your Lips Are Red,” leaving her thrashing around in the crowd and on the ground, making all sorts of sonic hell with her guitar. Not only is it thrilling to watch, but also thrilling to listen to. I’ve never ever seen a bad St. Vincent show, and sincerely hope that I never will.

My final stop by the Blue Stage on Saturday was to catch part of the set from the third Class of 2014 artist performing that day, FKA twigs. The R&B artist has been strongly building up hype over the last couple of months with the announcement of her debut album due out in mid-August, and preceded the white hot new single “Two Weeks.” Her set presented a great way to preview the new material as well as get further absorbed into the unique world that she has carved out for herself. The end results were decidedly mixed. She was supported on stage by a total of three percussionists with electric drum pads, which were used for both rhythmic purposes as well as to trigger samples and beats. In some ways her songs were even thinner and more skeletal than Kelela’s earlier in the day, which would be fine if you couldn’t hear the sounds of St. Vincent’s roaring guitar out in the distance. twigs, aka Tahliah Barnett, didn’t do a whole lot to help herself early on either, particularly as the vocals for her first song were more whispered than they were sung. Of course there was steady improvement after that, and it seemed like she found her footing as she moved around the stage dancing to the beats and softly cooing as required. Try though she might, Barnett was unable to reach the same level of intimacy nor display the same level of confidence and poise that Kelela had already shown was possible. The two artists aren’t the same and certainly have their own unique styles, just at the moment its clear one is more practiced and better at performing for a large outdoor crowd than the other. twigs managed to pull in a pretty sizable crowd who were rabid fans eager to hear material from EP1, EP2 and the forthcoming LP1, and most I’m sure felt like they got exactly what they wanted. Personally, I’m intrigued to see if a dark, indoor venue would make for a better live delivery system of her gorgeously fragile songs.

Having seen Jeff Mangum perform solo back in 2012, I was pretty sure what to expect when it came to Neutral Milk Hotel‘s headlining set on Saturday night at Pitchfork. Sure, the songs and setlist were just about the same, but it turned out to be a far different beast than anticipated. First all of the songs sounded mightier and more energized with the full band behind them. In particular, “Holland, 1945” and “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2-3” hit with such a great impact that it drove the crowd into a frenzy that included a strong push forward to get closer to the stage, followed by some actual moshing, which is not really something you’d ever expect from a Neutral Milk Hotel show. There were sing-alongs galore, especially for anything on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and the middle part of the set that was decidedly short on that material allowed the earlier insanity to mellow out a bit. The night wrapped up with Mangum taking a largely solo turn on the epic “Oh Comely,” which is exactly as it should be. With a strict no photos/filming policy (even the video screens were shut off), there was a certain comfort in knowing that the crowd wouldn’t be preoccupied with capturing the show on their phones and instead just living in that moment for once, acknowledging others around you and realizing we’re all in this together. That was probably the band’s intention, and I exited Union Park that evening feeling tired but also more connected.

Pitchfork Music Festival 2014: Saturday Preview


Of the three days that comprise this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, I think that Saturday might be the most eclectic and strange. If you love hip hop, R&B or electronica, there’s a whole lot of wild choices to make. There’s also plenty of other genre-baiting stuff too, in accordance with the different strokes for different folks balance. I will say this much though: the quality of artists here is completely off the charts. Some of the choices you’ll need to make might be a little harder than you think. Which is why I’ve put together this handy preview guide to try and provide some sort of guidance. As a reminder, the artists are listed by the hour block in which they’ll be performing, and my official recommended picks are denoted with a **. In case you missed any of my previous posts, you can click here for the Artist Guide, which features music from every single artist on this year’s lineup. You can also have a look at the Friday Preview Guide as well, should you be attending multiple days. Enjoy, and share who you’re most excited about seeing this year in the comments!

Twin Peaks [Green Stage, 1:00]**
Similar to Hundred Waters’ standalone time slot on Friday, Twin Peaks get 45 minutes of unopposed performance time to kick off Saturday. That’s likely due to The Julie Ruin dropping out some months back due to Kathleen Hanna’s health issues. But that loss is Twin Peaks’ gain, as the local Chicago garage rockers are sure to put on a high energy and fun set that will be a fantastic way to pump you up for the day of music ahead. Their debut album Sunken was more of an EP than anything else, packing in a bunch of songs across only 20 or so minutes, complete with a whole bunch of sloppy, Replacements-style guitar jangle. That’s meant as a compliment. They’ll have another new album called Wild Onion out in less than a month, and they’ll likely be playing a bunch of unheard songs from that as well. If the new stuff is on par or better than what we’ve already gotten from them, look for this band to start breaking big sooner rather than later.

Ka [Red Stage, 1:45]
Circulatory System [Blue Stage, 1:55]**
At last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, Killer Mike made an incredibly strong impression with a set that was a lesson in emotionally invested storytelling. He proclaimed that hip hop wasn’t something that needed to advocate for guns and violence, and could in fact be used for good, positive messages. Ka’s version of hip hop doesn’t really have positive messages, but instead seeks to inspire change in our culture by chronicling the issues on our streets in a very informative way. He’s an excellent lyricist, but it’s the highly emotional way that he says those words that really force you to take them to heart. For all practical purposes, his set could be pretty dramatic and remarkable. Meanwhile, Circulatory System is basically an Elephant 6 band featuring a majority of the members from Olivia Tremor Control. If you only understood about half the words in that last sentence, let me try to clarify a little better. They’re basically a lo-fi indie pop band with particularly creative, often odd or twee leanings. Consider them a companion and warm up to Neutral Milk Hotel, headlining later in the day. It’s entirely possible that even Jeff Mangum himself might pop on stage to contribute to a song or two. The collective’s leader Will Cullen Hart composed their latest album Mosaics Within Mosaics by dusting off some old unreleased recordings and repurposing/re-recording them for the present. It’s a good record, and the band’s first in 5 years. They’re not particularly active, nor do they tour often due to Hart’s health issues, so the rare chance to see them at Pitchfork might be worth your time.

Wild Beasts [Green Stage, 2:30]**
Empress Of [Blue Stage, 2:50]
The last time I saw Wild Beasts perform, it was about three years ago in an outdoor festival setting on a particularly warm and sunny day. Considering that their highly sexualized and highly stylized R&B sound is best experienced in a dark and intimate setting, it felt a little bit out of place. But the band did their best to make the most of the situation, and it turned out to be rather enjoyable overall. I’m expecting them to fare even better this time around, considering their new record Present Tense is their liveliest and most gorgeous to date. They’ve dramatically increased their use of synths and complex percussion, which should be fascinating to see recreated in the live setting. That, and frontman Hayden Thorpe’s vocals remain utterly arresting. If you’re looking to keep your energy high in the early afternoon hours however, your better bet will be going to check out Empress Of (Lorely Rodriguez). She’s only got an EP and a couple of singles to her name so far, but has already made quite the impression with material that ranges from damaged art pop to bubblegum synth pop. Yes, most of her songs are catchy and danceable, and she might be best described as a slightly more mainstream-oriented version of Grimes. The thing is however, since this is still a relatively new project (less than 2 years old) and we haven’t heard a ton of material from it yet, there’s a bit of an uncertainty about how well her performance might go. I’m sure she won’t be bad by any means, but will she likely be a much better performer about a year from now? Probably. Empress Of’s set will be what you make of it, so don’t be afraid to let loose and have some fun!

Cloud Nothings [Red Stage, 3:20]**
Mas Ysa [Blue Stage, 3:45]
When Cloud Nothings performed at the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival, it was in the middle of a tremendous rainstorm. Their set didn’t start that way, but it absolutely finished that way. The most fascinating thing was that as the rain got heavier, the band played harder. You could say they wanted to match the intensity of the weather. They were forced to stop when conditions became too dangerous and electricity was cut to their stage. They still finished the song they were playing though, screaming into the crowd because the speakers weren’t working. That’s passion and dedication, and it made for one of the best musical memories of that year. Hopefully the weather stays dry this year, and they’re able to get a full set in. It’s going to be some high energy, incredibly raw punk rock. Dylan Baldi’s voice still absolutely shreds too. Meanwhile on the small stage, composer Mas Ysa (Thomas Arsenault) will be whipping up his unique blend of emotional, experimental pop. His only released recordings to date were compiled on the Worth EP, which came out this past winter to strong reviews. What that EP primarily showed was that Arsenault was capable of a wide range of styles and tempos, but that his intensely heartfelt vocals took center stage no matter if he was belting out a ballad or soaring on a wave of pure energy. The guy is clearly talented and has great things ahead of him. It’s probably why I also named him as part of my “Class of 2014” project. With a debut full length on the way, it might be interesting to see what he decides to do during his Pitchfork set.

Pusha T [Green Stage, 4:15]**
The Range [Blue Stage, 4:45]
It’s critically acclaimed hip hop vs. critically acclaimed electronica for your four o’clock music choices. The choice is easy if you prefer one over the other, but what if you prefer both or neither? If you’re stuck, here’s my advice: go with the more interesting stage show. In this case, that’s clearly Pusha T. Hip hop can be really exciting to watch, especially when the crowd is into it and chants choruses or key lines from tracks. There’s likely a “hype man” trying to keep up the energy, and guest stars are always a plus too. I’ve heard good things about Pusha T’s live show, and some of the clips on YouTube make it look like an absolute blast. Then you have The Range’s instrumental electronica. James Hinton is the man behind the name, and he does a remarkable job blending a variety of different styles and influences into this very clean-sounding dance music. If you love drum & bass or Disclosure-style R&B, this should be right up your alley. Of course it’s also likely just going to be a guy sitting behind some turntables or a laptop the whole time. If you can ignore what’s happening on stage and simply commit to dancing mindlessly, perhaps The Range will be where you want to be.

tUnE-yArDs [Red Stage, 5:15]**
Kelela [Blue Stage, 5:45]
If you’ve never seen tUnE-yArDs perform live before, you’re missing out. Seriously, I’ve seen Merrill Garbus a handful of times now, and have been blown away during all of them. Her powerful vocals are her biggest selling point, but acclaimed records like w h o k i l l and this year’s Nikki Nack also showcase amazing songwriting and highly experimental song structures that make you want to dance and cheer at the same time. It only gets better witnessing it in person, particularly when Garbus is able to construct many of her songs using looping pedals. Per some reports I’ve read surrounding her touring for this new album, she appears to be doing a little less looping than before, but some is still more exciting to watch than none. It makes me feel a little sorry for Kelela, who has a lot going for her but simply can’t compete in this time slot. If you’re not familiar with Kelela, she’s a fantastic R&B singer who’s been on the rise for the last year or so thanks to her debut mixtape Cut 4 Me. What separates her from similar artists are her experimental leanings. She’s able to add some significant twists to traditional R&B thanks to creatively stimulating compositions that have also caught the attention of some of the dance crowd. She’s already released a new single and a collaboration with Tink this year, but if we’re lucky we might also get a full length album this fall. Perhaps she’ll offer up a little preview at the festival?

Danny Brown [Green Stage, 6:15]**
The Field [Blue Stage, 6:45]
For the second time in a three hour period, you’ve got hip hop vs. electronica. I’ve discussed the pros and cons of each already above (see Pusha T vs. The Range), so really whichever you choose to go see may be dependent on previous material. The dynamic between Danny Brown and The Field feels a lot more intense to me, in no small part because both artists are quite prolific at what they do. On last year’s Old, Danny Brown reached a new peak by making a record that’s equal parts mature and immature, focused and unfocused. He might not be as goofy as he once was, but he’s more confident and weirder than ever before, which is a delight. Of course many people also find Danny Brown to be annoying and his voice to be a bit grating, which is completely understandable. Maybe then you can find comfort in the arms of The Field. Axel Willner has been making highly danceable electronica at a steady pace for the last few years, and his latest effort Cupid’s Head he may have just eclipsed himself. It’s a darker, more intense affair, which represents a great progression from his earlier material. The real question is what version of The Field will be showing up at Union Park on Saturday. In the past, he’s performed with a band, which brings a lot of extra gusto and crowd-pleasing moments to the show. More recently, he’s taken to performing solo, which makes it a more subdued and drone-intensive show. If Willner does have the full band, that almost tips the scales in his favor against Danny Brown. Notice I said almost. Of course if you’re just looking to dance and could care less, The Field will satisfy.

St. Vincent [Red Stage, 7:25]**
FKA twigs [Blue Stage, 7:45]
I love FKA twigs, I really do, but this one is kind of a no brainer. As St. Vincent, we’ve seen Annie Clark grow significantly as an artist these last few years. Her output only seems to be getting better and better as her songs and style become increasingly complex. By now she’s well established as one of the finest guitarists making music today. It’s a genuine pleasure to watch her tear into a solo with incredible intensity. Her latest album is self-titled, and is technically speaking a major label debut. She added some new digital and electronic wrinkles to many of the songs on that record, which somehow managed to feel like a natural progression. I keep thinking the bottom is going to fall out with the next new record, but it hasn’t happened yet, to my surprise and pleasure. So without a doubt, you should watch and enjoy a St. Vincent show if you have the opportunity, even though the crowd will surely be massive. I’m not sure how many people will be excited to see FKA twigs as the sun begins to set on Saturday, but there’s probably no better time for her to be performing. Her slow burn R&B draws you in like a moth to a flame, which is probably why her first two EPs earned her quite a bit of attention. She’ll be putting out a debut album called LP1 this fall, and the first single “Two Weeks” is pretty incredible. Expect her set to feature more new music, just don’t expect it to be high on energy. If you’re feeling a little tired and might like a nice patch of shade to hang out in as the day draws to a close, head over to the Blue Stage and soak in the FKA twigs.

Neutral Milk Hotel [Green Stage, 8:30]**
In 2012, Jeff Mangum emerged from whatever hole he was hiding in and decided to start performing again. He had been absent from the music scene for over a decade, though occasionally popped up here or there at shows for Elephant 6 bands and the like. I saw Mangum perform solo twice in 2012, and both times it was incredibly riveting as he ran through Neutral Milk Hotel’s two album catalogue with only an acoustic guitar in hand. Part of me questioned why he even needed to get the full band back together, but I guess the songs aren’t quite the same unless you’ve got all the musicians behind it playing along with you. So it shall go to close out Saturday at Pitchfork. Expect it to be fun, and expect a sing-along on an absolutely massive scale. I’ve seen Mangum do the intimate acoustic solo thing, now I’m intrigued to hear those same songs blown out and plugged in for the outdoor festival crowd.

Check out the Sunday Preview Guide!

SXSW 2012: Final Thoughts + Photos

Four days, 32 artists, and one physically/mentally tired guy. That about sums up my SXSW 2012 experience. While I was stumbling around Austin in a haze the last hour of the last day, my first trip to SXSW was a wonderful experience I wouldn’t trade for the world. After hearing so many great things about the city and the conference/festival, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer and simply had to go just once, just to see what it was like. The end result was largely what I expected it to be, but with a few surprises thrown in as well. My hope here is to chronicle the things I think worked about SXSW, and a few that didn’t. Also, if you click past the jump, you can see all the photos I took while in Austin. If you’d like to read about individual performances that I saw last week, have a look at the following daily reports:

Wednesday
Thursday
Friday
Saturday

The Good
Perhaps the thing that makes SXSW truly great is the sheer size of it all. There are literally thousands of bands performing over a handful of days, almost all of them within the span of about 2 square miles. Getting around from show to show isn’t bad, whether you’re on foot or feel the need to take a pedicab. Of course 6th Street can get a little packed during peak hours and create some slow downs, but it’s never anything too unmanageable, even if you need to get somewhere fast. The wide array of shows and showcases happening at any given time can also create a bit of a headache, as it’s not exactly easy to pick and choose if there are 6 artists you want to see all performing at once. Learning the city and the locations of all the venues both legitimate and illegitimate goes a long way towards helping you make such tough choices based purely on conveniece and distance from where you’re currently at. Do you go see Cloud Nothings playing down the block, or do you walk 6 blocks to see Grimes? As I see it, the decision is pretty much already made for you.

Yet there are also a few SXSW music moments that you can’t always plan for, simply because they weren’t planned. There weren’t many “secret” shows this year so much as there were secret guests like Kanye West jumping on stage at the 2 Chainz show or Eminem showing up to support 50 Cent or Bruce Springsteen bringing out everyone from Jimmy Cliff to members of Arcade Fire to Tom Morello and Alejandro Escovedo. Those extra thrills only make the experience more special. Also a major contributor: the people. Austin is already something of a cultural melting pot, but with music fans and artists coming into town from all over the world, the diversity factor multiplies by about 10. But here’s the thing aboug most music fans: they’re good, friendly people. You could strike up a great conversation with the person standing next to you in line and not blink an eye. Everybody was there because they love music, and the easiest conversation starter was always finding out who they’re most excited to see while in town. The only time I ever saw anybody get angry was when a couple of people cut in line trying to get into a show. The reaction was less anger and more, “That wasn’t cool, guys.” If we as a society behaved more like everyone in Austin at SXSW did, the world would be a more peaceful place. Unless of course you’re at an A$AP Rocky show and somebody’s throwing full beer cans at the stage. That near-riot situation was a showcase of the worst side of humanity.

But outside of good music, good people and good weather, good food is another thing Austin is known for. There were food trucks and street vendors on most corners, each specializing in a different type of cuisine. You could get breakfast tacos at one place, and some Korean version of spaghetti at another. There was plenty of BBQ to be found too. If you’re a fan of slow-roasted meats that are tender and delicious, you didn’t have to walk more than a block in downtown Austin to find some. For the cheapskates, there were also a bunch of showcases giving away free food. It’s worth noting that like grocery store samples, the “food” they give you for free is often small and may not be of the highest quality. It also gets snatched up almost immediately for those reasons as well. You’re costing yourself a potentially great meal if you’re not paying for it.

The Bad
For all the great things that happen in Austin during SXSW, it’s not a perfect situation by any means. First and foremost among the issues is overcrowding. Things may get cramped when you’re walking down the street, but that’s nothing compared to what’s happening inside many of the venues. Jam packed to the gills, trying to get anywhere close to the action was tough, let alone trying to make your way back to the exit. When things did get that bad, the waiting games began. Lines built up outside venues that were a city block or more long, everyone beholden to the “one in, one out” policy. Pitchfork’s evening showcase at Central Presbyterian Church was the height of madness, and I stood in line for 3 hours, missing Fiona Apple, just to get into the 500 capacity venue. Was it worth it? Eh, kinda. Every performance I saw there was a revelation, which is more than I can say about the other venues in town. I’m not entirely sure how all these sound engineers stay employed given how many times I saw an artist ask for a levels adjustment or something broke. I know these artists don’t get a soundcheck during SXSW and they want to put on the best show possible, but constantly stopping or even aborting some songs right in the middle because of a small issue takes away whatever mojo that might have developed in the meantime. The worst night of all was at Clive Bar, where Tycho played without any sub-bass, New Build’s monitors weren’t functioning properly, and Grimes was forced to start her set even after everything wasn’t tested to see if it was working properly (it wasn’t).

Sound issues are just one half of the paradoxes that SXSW presents. The other is overextension. While SXSW can be a great thing for artists (performing in front of music industry bigwigs brings all sorts of exposure along with it), agreeing to play 3 shows a day for 4 days in a row can put you near death’s door. Touring is tough enough when you’ve got one show every night for 3 weeks straight, but SXSW is a marathon compared to that long distance run. Artists function on little to no sleep and can easily blow out their voices from singing too much. On Thursday night I saw Grimes play a perfect show at Central Presbyterian Church. 24 hours later, she had performed at least twice more before arriving at Clive Bar with a voice that was barely there. She fought against it as hard as she could, and eventually had to call it quits in a set that was also plagued with sound problems. It was a valiant effort, but likely left most of the crowd disappointed. Then again, everyone was so kind, understanding and enthusiastic, it probably didn’t matter as much as I thought it did.

Finally, I want to mention the hierarchy that is SXSW. Your amount of access is almost entirely based upon your status within the music industry. If you’re not part of the industry and are simply looking to see some free music, there’s lots to choose from if you don’t mind a bunch of bands you’ve never heard of. If there was a line anywhere, it was almost guaranteed the general public would not be allowed in, as those with badges or wristbands automatically had first dibs. Among the badges and wristbands, only the badges were given priority access into any venue. Every badge would be allowed in before any wristbands would, no matter when they showed up. Of course if I had a badge I probably wouldn’t be complaining about it, it’s just that there were so many of them. There must have been at least a dozen shows I tried to get into but was denied because the room was already filled with badges. Granted, badges cost around $900 and you should be getting something for that money, but it would be more fair if they offerend some balance like for every 100 badges let in, 10 wristbands also get in. Alas, wristband holders got the shorter end of the stick, while the general public was more shafted than anything.

To Conclude
SXSW is something that every obsessive music fan should attend at least once in their lives. It can be a genuine blast if you let it, and only gets better the more access you have. Not but a few years ago, the several day conference/festival served as a proving and development ground for new music talent. Today, that’s not really the case anymore. You may discover your new favorite band while wandering around Austin, but for the most part our discoveries are contained to the hype cycle on the good ‘ol Internet. Then again, were it not for SXSW I never would have stumbled into the band Tearist and one of the most batshit crazy/weird live shows I’ve ever seen. I’m still not sure whether it was supremely stupid or incredibly clever, but if you like incomprehensible psych-pop and somebody showing an iron beam who’s boss with a lead pipe, Tearist could be for you. Outside of the occasional exposure to an artist you didn’t intend to see, you’re quite in control of your own destiny. Unless you’re the adventuresome type willing to walk into a venue without knowing or caring who’s performing, most identify and target acts based on personal tastes or recommendations of others. With so many choices, you can use the time to check a few acts off your personal bucket list. That’s what I did, and though I didn’t get to see every artist I wanted to, I feel like what I did see was extremely worthwhile anyways, with the aforementioned issues or not. I hope I get to go again, be it next year or in 10 years. And if you didn’t go, I hope you take the opportunity to get to Austin soon. It’s a great American city, and the Live Music Capital of the World for a reason.

Click past the jump for photos of many of the bands I saw at this year’s SXSW, in alphabetical order:

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SXSW 2012: Thursday

I’m going to attempt to make this Thursday recap of my SXSW adventure as brief as possible. Knowing me though, brief is a relative term. Let’s just see how this goes. Oh, and as a reminder, I’ll have all my photos for you sometime next week when I can properly edit them down.

My first stop of the day was over to Google/YouTube’s parking lot party. They had a stage set up on the roof of a parking garage and all the free drinks you could handle. Best Coast had an early afternoon set, and I wanted to hear some new songs off their forthcoming second album. I came, and the band delivered. Bethany, Bobb and two other guys played about 5-6 new ones, with a smattering of old “classics” in there too. There was “Boyfriend” and “When I’m With You”, but also “Why I Cry” and “How They Want Me to Be”, among others. Overall an excellent set, better than the last time I saw the band which was a couple years ago.

Sticking around and drinking more, I caught Cults next. In the about 7 months since I saw them last, they’ve grown quite a bit. I don’t mean physically, but performance-wise. The more touring they’ve been getting under their belts, the better they seem to get. Everything about their performance was spot on, even though I was standing right across from Brian Oblivion’s guitar amp and my ears were getting blasted. Madeline Follin is more confident behind the microphone as well, which is a big help. They played material off their debut album, and maybe a couple new ones, though I can’t be certain they weren’t obscure b-sides or something.

I could think of no place I’d rather be after Cults than waiting at that same stage again but this time for Frankie Rose. I really like her new album Interstellar, plus it’s been a little while since I saw her last. She was performing with the Outs back then, who were subsequently dropped. She’s now got a core backing band of about 5 other people, and they all do a solid job. But really it’s Rose’s show, and her masterful stage presence helps make the hot outdoor stage just a bit more bearable. She also played it pretty liberal with her song choices, pulling almost equally from her first album and her new one.

What’s sad about the Frankie Rose show and the two before it was how sparsely attended they were. Sure, that meant no lines, no fighting to get to the front of the stage, and more free alcohol for me, but those were 3 great bands I saw in a row that maybe 50 others were also there to witness. Nobody even approached the stage or hung out at the barricade until Frankie Rose started her set. Even then it was myself and 4 others all the way up there. I’m sure all 3 of those bands will have much better crowds for the rest of their SXSW, but for an event put on by Google you’d think more people would come. Or maybe it was too early/people were at the conference listening to Springsteen do his keynote. Whatever the reason, it was nice to see those performances without being packed like sardines into some small club. Which is where I went next.

Chairlift are playing about 3 shows a day every day during SXSW, and because I’m kind of in love with their new album Something, I promised I’d go see them at least once. They were playing at a small club for the Under the Radar party, and of course it was crowded. To the point where it became a “one in, one out” situation and I was stuck in a long line. By the time I got inside, the band had already finished half their set. The half I did catch was all stuff from their new album, so I walked away pretty happy. Caroline Polachek appeared to be having a blast too, which is super hard when you’re playing multiple shows every day. Part of me wants to see them again before SXSW ends to get the full set experience.

After trying and failing a couple times to get into the Hype Hotel (a venue put on by the Hype Machine) due to seriously long lines, I decided that standing in line for Pitchfork’s showcase at Central Presbyterian Church would be my next best option. In case you were not aware, the church holds about 450 people total, and Fiona Apple was set to open the showcase. So many people were in line just to see Fiona. Having seen her the day before (albeit at a much larger venue), I was far more interested in the 4 members of my Class of 2012 that were performing after her.

After 3 excruciating hours of standing in line, I was kindly granted access to the church, arriving at the middle of Charli XCX‘s set. She’s really only got a couple songs to her name right now, but she’s already being tipped as a future star by myself and a few others. Her debut album will be out before the end of the year, and undoubtedly all the songs she performed Thursday night will be on it. Everything sounds fantastic, she’s got great stage presence, and I’m intrigued to hear how the recorded versions of a couple songs sound. All in due time.

Purity Ring were up next, another band without a debut album to their name and only a couple singles floating around the internet. Their marriage of hip hop beats and smooth female vocals naturally brings the duo into the sphere of Sleigh Bells by just a little bit. Like Sleigh Bells, it’s also a whole lot of fun. Purity Ring works harder to make it special too, requesting that all the lights in the venue be turned off so they could play around with multicolored orbs that glow and change colors when struck. As visually arresting as their set was, the music was just as excellent. Singles “Lofticries” and “Belispeak” couldn’t have been more on the money, to the point where most of the other songs seemed a little weaker by comparison. It was fun and danceable, but it’s a little tough to get people’s natural reaction in the middle of a seated pew church. Still, I’d like to think the standing ovation at the end of their set was a realistic response to what we’d just seen.

Next up was Grimes, who was quick to set up and get started. She didn’t want to waste any time, nor should she have. Using plenty of looping and synths, she crafted an incredible avant-pop soundscape that was wholly engaging and rather delightful. There were a couple moments where she messed a thing or two up, and that’s almost expected when you’re doing everything on your own, but it was a very forgiving crowd and she was super goofy about it. Most of what she did involved constructing songs off her latest album Visions, however there were a few experiments in there with vocal harmonies and the like that were sheer beauty. “Oblivion” and “Genesis” both got their turn as well, the latter after she was told there was time for one more song. She then refused to stop, playing another song in spite of the house lights coming up and organizers pulling their hair out. It was over after another couple minutes though, and she was treated with another standing ovation.

Much of the crowd cleared out after Grimes, only to make way for Nicolas Jaar, who was set to compose an original set based on the church setting. I expected it to be just a little boring and quiet, because the guy isn’t necessarily big on dance-worthy beats. Yet he still managed to piece together an excellent long-form piece that was introspective and beautiful while also upbeat and fun. That’s no easy feat, and he had a couple friends on hand to provide some live instrumentation along with his laptop-composed elements. I was a little angry at all the people taking flash photos during the set, because that’s long been a rude thing to do. Of course Jaar and his band were playing in near total darkness, and if you wanted a halfway decent picture flash was needed. I took no photos for the exact reason of it being too dark and I didn’t want to use the flash. Some people will do anything for a photo, and it looked like a lightning storm or paparazzi attack for at least the first 15 minutes before tapering off somewhat. The music was amazing though, transcendent would be the word I’d best use to describe it. Go see Nicolas Jaar if you have the chance. The guy’s crazy talented.

Finally, to cap off my night I wanted a little rock and roll. After being kicked to the curb at the PureVolume House because I hadn’t picked up my venue-specific badge earlier in the day/week, I dashed over to catch Cloud Nothings performing on a rooftop. It was an extremely packed space, but even on the very busy 6th Street you could hear the band’s set quite clearly. No doubt many enjoyed their music without actually seeing any of it performed. But up on the roof people were jumping and throwing their fists into the air, like any good punk show should have going for it. Oh, and head banging. Plenty of that too. From what I heard of their set, which was about the back half of it, they played almost entirely material from their latest album Attack on Memory. It’s a great record, one of my favorites of 2012 so far, so I was having a blast. I was also super tired having been on my feet all day, but it was so much fun. A great capper to my night before heading back to the hotel to rest up for Day 3 of this madness. To think we’re only halfway there!

Album Review: Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory [Carpark]



Cloud Nothings are the sort of band that has been hyped forever but has yet to deliver on the promise of true brilliance. They’ve always been “on the cusp”, without ever fully reaching it. Each of their two previous full lengths has kept them at such a precipice, meaning they’re great enough to be highly regarded but never to the point where their name is on the tip of everyone’s tongues. It is with such continued propulsion that we arrive at the band’s third long player in 3 years, the aptly titled Attack on Memory. This time, we’re assured, things are different. Previously, the band has been very much a one-man show, with Dylan Baldi writing and crafting most of the songs on his own, and then having people back him up in the studio and live. In a sense, it was sort of a “hired hands” band. At this point though, Baldi seems to have reached a point where he’s comfortable with the guys he’s working with, and the new record is more of a collaborative effort than ever before. They also chose to bring in legendary producer Steve Albini, which according to some recent interviews with Baldi, may have been a bad decision. The guy apparently treated the recording process as his time to do anything but pay attention to the job at hand. Still, the album is somehow able to retain that Albini sheen (or is it a lack of sheen?), and makes for the most interesting and ultimately divisive Cloud Nothings records to date.

The title of the album, Attack on Memory, is supposed to be a challenge to the way you think about Cloud Nothings. If you’re familiar with their previous two albums, Turning On and Cloud Nothings, then you should be clearly familiar with the band’s lo-fi pop-punk pedigree. It’s been a bouncy and fun ride, even as the sound hones closer to Sum 41 and Blink 182 than it does Fugazi or The Wipers. The new album tries to shake off those comparisons and re-establish the band as something more visceral and hardcore. They almost completely succeed at this, save for a couple moments of relapse. One listen to opening track “No Future/No Past” and you’ll instantly understand the changes and hopefully embrace them with open arms. Baldi sings like a man possessed, and it’ll be amazing if he can perform that umpteen times on tour and still keep his voice intact. It genuinely feels like this was the sound he was aiming for all along. Yet if that doesn’t do much for you, perhaps the nearly 9 minutes of “Wasted Days” will. To my mind, the song stands as the new piece de resistance of Cloud Nothings, a juggernaut that chugs along and actively engages the listener with every waking moment, doing the exact opposite of what its title suggests. Just when you think it’s on the verge of outstaying its welcome, it gets harder, better and faster than ever, falling somewhere in the path between Sonic Youth and Bitch Magnet. Seriously, the band should use the song as a mission statement for future records it’s so impressive and certainly shows off the talents of all the band members beyond just a series of power chords.

Speaking of power chords, fans of the first two Cloud Nothings albums will find that tracks like “Fall In” and “Stay Useless” are much more up their alley, the former moreso than the latter. Both are fun and speedy doses of proto-punk excellence, and are probably the two most easily memorable songs on the entire album. The 3 minute instrumental “Separation” is kind of the gooey center of Attack on Memory, and its title too is very apt. With the absence of Baldi’s vocals, the weight of the song rests entirely on the sharp and heavy guitar/drum assault, which is more than effective as a statement of purpose going forwards: separate yourself from what you thought you knew about this band. And though Baldi screams, “No nostalgia!” on “No Sentiment”, the song itself actually carries the drudging feeling that you’ve heard it somewhere before. That’s not to say the song is unoriginal, not by a long shot, but rather evokes the goodness of a Sunny Day Real Estate or even Slint, in glorious fashion. You can practically hear Baldi sneering behind the microphone, and there’s a certain kickass quality to that.

In spite of everything, Attack on Memory sort of loses steam in its final two tracks. Both feel like noble efforts to keep the same sort of spirit alive from all that came before it, but they’re a little more emotionally disconnected and drag in spite of their decent tempos. Baldi’s well-written lyrics remain intact, but his voice doesn’t reflect what he’s throwing out there. “It’ll never get old,” he sings on “Our Plans”, ironically sounding like somebody that’s pretty bored. You’d hope that wasn’t the case, particularly as the album is only 8 tracks total, with nothing except for “Wasted Days” crossing the 5-minute mark. In such cases it’d be nice if everything was as explosive as dynamite. Still, there’s so much quality over the duration of this album you’d be wrong to call it a misstep for the band. If anything, this should strengthen their resolve and push them even further in the right direction for the future. Is this finally the record that pushes Cloud Nothings into a new league of hyped bands that finally make good on their promise? It stands to reason that yes, this is finally their time. That said, why am I still thinking they’re still destined for even bigger, even better things?

Cloud Nothings – No Future/No Past
Cloud Nothings – Stay Useless
Cloud Nothings – No Sentiment

Preorder Attack on Memory from Amazon

Album Review: Cloud Nothings – Cloud Nothings [Carpark/Wichita]


Cloud Nothings is the name under which 18-year-old Cleveland native Dylan Baldi makes music. In many senses he’s a musical purist, working hard to bring physical media back into play within a world that’s increasingly digital. His earliest songs, recorded entirely by himself via computer in his basement, were primarily distributed via cassette tape, CDR or vinyl. When he’d finally collected enough songs back in 2009 to create an album, the initial run was limited to 50 CDs and 100 cassettes. It seems those 150 copies were well-placed though, and with a little help from the internet buzz machine, the hype built to the point where labels were interested. The “Turning On” EP was the first official Cloud Nothings release on a label, followed by the 13 song album of the same title that collected everything Baldi had done up until that point. It wasn’t really a proper debut album, considering these were all the same old songs with the same crappy basement quality, simply re-released to give more people a chance to get ahold of them. Now it seems that 2011 is the chance for Cloud Nothings to take things to a new level. Baldi now has a full band backing him, and a legitimate studio-recorded album full of brand new songs. Now available via whatever recorded medium you so desire, “Cloud Nothings” is out this week.

You can easily identify the sound of Cloud Nothings by examining what bands they’ve toured with. Woods, Wavves, Best Coast, Kurt Vile and Real Estate are just a few notables, and if there’s one thing all those groups have in common it’s that they make quick and dirty lo-fi recordings that skew towards the fun and catchy. Even with the full use of a studio, Baldi only cleans up Cloud Nothings just a little bit. The guitars still grind and have sheaths of distortion and fuzz, but they don’t overtake everything else like they once did. That leaves more room for Baldi’s vocals, which attempt to but don’t always excel like he might want them to. He does have to prove himself singing-wise this time around because fidelity is no longer an issue. To be perfectly clear though, he’s always on key, it’s the WAY he sings that’s slightly problematic. Depending on the song, he’ll change his style accordingly, moving from lower register crooning to gutteral punk rock screams to even a slight bit of falsetto should he feel up to it. There’s no easy reference for who he might be trying to emulate on individual songs, just the feeling that not every vocal is consistent and you may wonder which voice is Baldi’s real singing voice.

What is completely consistent though is the songwriting. Baldi has a very innocent, heart-on-the-sleeve style of writing that serves his young years well. As Best Coast can write simple (but brilliant) songs about boys, weed and cats, Cloud Nothings can write about love, social rejection and a variety of other easy topics with an equal dose of simplicity and smarts. Fuzzed out proto-punk songs don’t particularly lend themselves well to complicated topics and big words, so while Baldi stays in familiar territory, his songs excel in plenty of other ways. You take a song like opening track “Understand at All”, where the chorus is basically “I don’t understand love/And I don’t understand at all”, and though those very basic lines speak from a young man’s perspective trying to make sense of things, more important than any of it is how insanely catchy it is. The melody is fun and bouncy despite the general confusion of the lyrics, and it’ll be stuck in your head for days if you let it. Keep in mind that’s just from track one. Expand out to the rest of the record, and this thing is packed to the gills with those same types of hooks, thrown at you over and over and over again in rapid succession. It’s too much, but that’s what inspires you to keep replaying it. You’ll need at least a half dozen listens to even begin to see the full picture, though chances are good chunks of the album will stick with you right from the start. It’s that insane combination of factors that pushes “Cloud Nothings” above the fray and into buzz band status.

Cloud Nothings owes a debt of gratitude to a number of bands, primarily from the grittier side of the 90s, but if you’re looking for a good modern-day band to compare, there’s a very similar strength in arms to the UK band Male Bonding. If you heard their record “Nothing Hurts” last year (it was one of 2010’s best), you should immediately find comfort in the arms of Cloud Nothings. Similarly, if you’re already familiar with or are just now trying and liking Cloud Nothings, having a glance at Male Bonding could introduce you to another great lo-fi rock band with a strong ear for dynamic hooks and off-the-charts energy. But back on the topic at hand, “Cloud Nothings” represents the exact step forwards this band needs to take relative to the basement demo quality of the first album. It’s clearer, catchier and more focused than its predecessor and offers promises of potentially great things to come from this band in the very near future. In the cold month that is January, this album is a little ray of fun sunshine to help break you out of whatever funk you might be in. If it works that well now, imagine how good it’ll sound once it’s actually warm outside.

Cloud Nothings – Should Have (STREAM)

Cloud Nothings – Understand at All (MP3)

Buy “Cloud Nothings” from Amazon

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