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Album Review: Savages – Silence Yourself [Matador/Pop Noire]



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.

Video: Savages – Shut Up
Audio Stream: Savages – She Will

Buy Silence Yourself from Amazon

Show Review: New Order [Aragon Ballroom; Chicago; 10/21/12]


Let’s go over a brief history of New Order. In the wake of the tragedy that was Ian CUrtis’ suicide, the remaining members of Joy Division decided to become New Order, with guitarist Bernard Sumner taking over the role of frontman. While Joy Division was an influential band that will likely remain legendary because of what they accomplished in a very short duration, it’s New Order that really earned their keep, building critical acclaim with music that was essentially ahead of its time. Many have followed in the sonic footsteps of New Order, but none have had been able to replicate their success in quite the same way. As is natural though, they were also a band of a very specific time and place. They were around for the explosion of the Manchester music scene, signed to Factory Records thanks to the insane brilliance of Tony Wilson, and were pretty much given free range to do whatever the hell they wanted with such opportunities. You can’t get a deal that great these days no matter what band you’re in. But the ’90s weren’t as kind to New Order, and they broke up in 1993 to pursue side projects. They got back together in 1998, made a couple more albums and did a couple more tours before breaking up again in 2007. This time, the breakup was more the result of bassist Peter Hook refusing to work with Sumner any more. Sumner subsequently announced he no longer wanted to make music under the New Order name. While all the other guys in the band (including Sumner) went on to do more side projects, Hook chose to dig up the past and began playing old Joy Division albums in full with a backing band he called The Light. While some were excited by that prospect, many felt that Hook was doing damage to Joy Division’s legacy and was clearly only out to make money off the corpse of Ian Curtis. Perhaps in part to protect their own legacy, New Order officially reformed in late 2011 without Hook, but with keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, who had left the band more than 10 years earlier to become a wife and mother. They played a handful of shows in late 2011 and early 2012, but didn’t make it to North America until this fall, where a short tour rolled through Chicago this past Sunday night. Here is a recap of how things went.

It’s been seven years since New Order played a show in Chicago, and to my understanding that show was a little shaky. A friend told me the band was using lyrics sheets and teleprompters to get through most of the songs. When you’ve been around for a few decades, I guess your memory can get fuzzy. But lyrical crutches aside, I guess their energy was also a little down. One wonders if tensions between band members (or just Hook) caused problems back then. Whatever their issues might have been, they showed no signs of fatigue or bad memory during their show at the Aragon Sunday night. Every note was hit and every lyric was correct. Looking at reviews of the band’s show in New York a couple days earlier, that wasn’t entirely the case, as Sumner reportedly forgot some of the words to “Ceremony.” Better to have that happen though then to stand there reading off a sheet of paper. Even the best bands forget a verse or two now and then. But like all the other shows on this tour, New Order has been smart and stuck with a veritable greatest hits melange of career-spanning material. They spread it out generously over two hours, though it’s tough to top the first few songs that included “Crystal,” “Regret,” “Ceremony,” “Age of Consent” and “Love Vigilantes.” What’s just a little odd was the crowd reaction to those songs. While the band appeared to be in top form, in particular on “Ceremony,” it seemed exceptionally tough to get people motivated to dance. These were glossy ’80s hits that continue to provide inspiration to club DJs around the world, yet I saw very little movement outside of head bobbing in the early part of the set. Now once “Bizarre Love Triangle” landed about 10 songs in, it was like a switch flipped and everybody woke up. Suddenly even a deep cut off Power, Corruption & Lies like “5 8 6” was met with some sharp dance moves. Of course it was all building to something, and the final 1-2 punch of “Blue Monday” and “Temptation” sent everyone into a frenzy the likes of which I haven’t seen since LCD Soundsystem a couple years ago. For those final 15 minutes, the disco ball dropped and I think New Order shined as brightly as they did in their ’80s heyday.

For all the critical tongue lashing I give to Peter Hook for playing Joy Division albums in full these days, when New Order chose to play an encore of Joy Division songs it didn’t feel as cheap. After all, they’ve been throwing a couple Joy Divison songs into their sets for decades now. They’re always used as toppers on an already great show, and always in expressed tribute to Ian Curtis. They present the songs with reverence so it doesn’t come off as cheap exploitation. After all, most of them were as much a part of Joy Division as Curtis was, it’s only his trademark baritone that’s missing from the proceedings. But my what a baritone it was. Sumner can’t quite get there no matter how hard he tries. Their rendition of “Heart and Soul” was okay, but the crowd didn’t react well to it, probably because it was a deep cut on Closer. “Atmosphere” was triumphant in its own way, and the background video did draw some big cheers. Of course it was only fitting to close the night with “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and it gave everyone the opportunity to dance around one last time. With that, the band waved goodnight to their adoring fans. Everyone left with a smile on their face and sweat on their bodies, which is a testament that a good night was had by all. The absence of Hook may have given many the impression that this wasn’t a legitimate New Order show, but anybody that has seen the band since he left will likely tell you that Tom Chapman is a solid if not great replacement for him. New Order’s future is likely that of Pavement’s or At the Drive-In’s in recent years – they will tour for a set period of time to play the hits, and then once again vanish into the ether as everyone returns to their side projects. It’s probably better that way, to keep their legacy as strong as possible. Whatever they choose to do next, it’s just refreshing to know that a veteran band like this hasn’t really lost a step, and that their music still feels as relevant today as it did when it was first created.

Set List
Elegia
Crystal
Regret
Ceremony
Age of Consent
Love Vigilantes
Here to Stay
Your Silent Face
Close Range
Bizarre Love Triangle
5 8 6
True Faith
The Perfect Kiss
Blue Monday
Temptation
ENCORE
Heart and Soul (Joy Division)
Atmosphere (Joy Division)
Love Will Tear Us Apart (Joy Division)

Buy New Order music from Amazon

Snapshot Review: Eternal Summers – Correct Behavior [Kanine]



If you’re going to pick a band name as emotionally evocative as Eternal Summers, you’d best have the material to back it up. People get excited about summer, because it means time off from school or work, warm weather, and lazy days by the pool or lake with family and friends. It’s a special season to say the least, and one we often wish would go on forever. The road hasn’t always been paved with sunshine and blissful happiness for Eternal Summers though. They’ve spent the last few years in relative obscurity, part of a somewhat secret music community in their hometown of Roanoke, VA called Magic Twig. It’s a loose collective of musicians that work with one another without much regard for official band membership. They have their own recording studio and embrace the DIY/lo-fi aesthetic. Guitarist/singer Nicole Yun and drummer Daniel Cundiff met that way, and with their minimal pop powers combined they became established enough to earn a record deal. After a couple of EPs, 2010 saw the release of their first full length Silver. While it certainly achieved some degree of measurable success, reviews weren’t exactly glowing with affection for the duo. Then further tragedy struck: while on tour, their gear was stolen. Yun’s special Parker Nitefly guitar was among the losses, and she didn’t have the money to pay for a new one. Other guitars didn’t quite have the sonic range to pull off some of their songs, so to compensate for the low end they brought in bassist Jonathan Woods. Becoming a three-piece has fleshed out Eternal Summers’ sound more than ever, as has their decision to outsource the mixing of their new album Correct Behavior to New York, where The Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner and producer Alonzo Vargas took care of it. They may have been concerned about letting other people have some degree of control over their sound, but the end product really shines positively on the growth of the band and provides the leg up needed to get the attention they deserve. Helpful as these changes might be, in the end they don’t amount to much if the songs themselves aren’t good. Thankfully Eternal Summers don’t have that problem, as this album features stronger lyrics, more confident vocals and more candy-coated hooks than anything they’ve ever done before. First single “Millions” kicks things off in a very bright and bouncy fashion, really hammering home the fuller sound and putting Yun’s vocals at the front of the mix. “I’ve got to shake this shell and break it into millions,” she sings, and while it’s supposed to represent a new found freedom in your life, in many ways it also feels like the band is starting fresh and embracing the same ideals. That same intense energy and playfulness continues to carry on through super addictive songs like “Wonder,” “You Kill” and “I Love You.” All together those first four songs make for one of the best starts of any record so far this year. Cundiff’s drumming is propulsive in exactly the ways it needs to be, especially on more punk rock numbers like “You Kill” and “Girls in the City.” Yun also gets in some intelligent guitar solos on “Wonder” and “Heaven and Hell,” likely the result of not having to worry about being the only guitar in the band anymore. There are a few moments where Correct Behavior slows down, which help balance out the record nicely and give you a chance to catch your breath. “It’s Easy” and “Good As You” are dreamy and beautiful in all the ways they need to be, holding your attention when they very well could have killed the mojo established by the quicker, more upbeat tracks. Perhaps the biggest standout on the entire album comes right in the middle with “Girls in the City.” It’s the only track where Cundiff handles the vocals, and the post-punk melody blended with his very cut-and-dry baritone makes it comparable with something you’d hear from Joy Division or Crystal Stilts. Eternal Summers showed hints of such influences on their previous releases, however it’s never come across as clearly as it does here. The only real problem is that it doesn’t mesh as well with the breezier pop stuff that’s all over the rest of the record. Finding a better way to incorporate new and different styles is one of the things they can work on for their next long player. In the meantime, Correct Behavior goes a very long way towards making Eternal Summers the sort of band you want soundtracking those times of fun in the sun.

Eternal Summers – You Kill

Eternal Summers – Millions

Buy Correct Behavior from Amazon

Album Review: The Drums – Portamento [Frenchkiss/Moshi Moshi/Island]


It’s been just over a year since The Drums released their self-titled debut album, and for all the touring they did to promote it, for whatever reason the band had enough time on their hands to write and record a follow-up. This in spite of undergoing a lineup change last fall as well. There are a number of potential reasons for a band to crank out another record so quickly. If you’re like Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox or The Fiery Furnaces’ Matthew Friedberger or Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard, songwriting comes so naturally that it becomes problematic if you aren’t consistently making new music. Other bands and artists will keep creating new music in order to keep the hype cycle going, keeping your name on the tip of everybody’s tongues. Then you’ve got those that did relatively well with their last album, but are being pressured by their label to hurry up and record something new in the hopes of generating more cash while the iron is still hot. Of course some artists have also been operating with a low profile for a lengthy period of time and have built a large catalogue of songs and demos that are just waiting to get that studio polish on them. Where do The Drums fall in amongst these possible options? Well, with their new record “Portamento”, it’s a little tough to say. Based purely on conjecture and the songs on this new album, it would seem that the band probably should have given some more time and consideration when putting together their sophmore record.

What brought The Drums moderate success in the first place was their whistle-happy song “Let’s Go Surfing” off that debut album, a track that was super catchy and embodied the spirit of its title. In fact, “surf rock” is one of the descriptive labels you could affix to the band’s sound, though they go far beyond that. They earned early comparisons to New Order and Joy Division, along with The Cure and The Smiths, essentially amounting to their sound being well within the realm of 80s synth-pop, but again with that sunnier, surf edge to it. The funny part is that in spite of their lighter and brighter pop side, the band is more interested in poking fun at those elements and recent surge in popularity than they are succumbing to their charms. Plus, though the melodies themselves might be charmingly upbeat, close examination of the lyrics reveal a much darker and more depressed side of the band. That’s a big part of where the 80s new wave influence comes in, along with a bunch of bass-dominant songs. There’s a certain script that The Drums followed on their debut that felt wholly unoriginal while still sucking us in and winning us over. Here appeared to be a band on the verge of either making it or breaking it based solely on whether or not they played their cards right.

“Portamento” does very little to change what we’re already familiar with about The Drums. They’re still all about those super catchy 80s-inspired melodies with just a hint of lighthearted surf, but they do throw in a twist or two to project at least some evolution. The songs go a touch darker in mood this time around, whether it’s discussing the absence of an afterlife in “Book of Revelation” and “Searching for Heaven” or emotional unavailability in relationships in “Hard to Love” and “I Don’t Know How to Love”. Yet there’s still a very toe-tapping and easygoing feel to many of the melodies. Instrumentally speaking, the band has broadened their sonic palette just a little, adding in things like vocal looping and a greater reliance on synths which means pulling away from guitars just a touch. Yet it doesn’t work out too well, especially on “Searching for Heaven” where synths and vocals are the only two elements in play. Pinned to start the second half of the record, the track just limps along with little to nothing going for it outside of Johnathan Pierce’s vocals, which come across as oddly off-key and disaffected. It becomes one of the album’s standout moments for all the wrong reasons. While nothing else ever gets quite so poor in quality, “Portamento” is absolutely front-loaded with all the best moments. Either that, or after the first half the second half starts to sound like virtually the same songs over and over again. The tempo stays relatively quick and the choruses keep pushing hook after hook like they’re going out of style, but they’re rendered as blunt and moderately ineffective on tracks like “If He Likes It Let Him Do It” and “In the Cold”.

The good news is that The Drums still have at least a handful of super addictive songs on “Portamento” to keep us on the leash for a little while longer. “Days” is by no means their most creative effort, but it’s tough to not find yourself humming it to yourself a few hours after hearing it. There’s a saxophone that pops up on “What You Were” that is a nice little treat when paired with the brisk pace and dreamy atmosphere. First single “Money” is super fun and super danceable, even if the chorus strikes far too many times over 4 minutes that it begins to feel uncomfortable. Amidst the lowlights the second half of the record brings, “I Need A Doctor” is either a good song or feels a lot like one because it’s sandwiched between two bad ones. “How It Ended” closes the record on a strong note though, practically rediscovering the energy and playfulness of the first half of the album and leaving you wondering why the entire record couldn’t have maintained that same quality.

In a nutshell, if you liked the first Drums record, you’ll likely feel the same way about the second. There are no tracks on “Portamento” that are as strong as “Let’s Go Surfing” was, but there are still plenty of successes on it in spite of that. Even then, it’s easy to call this new record a disappointment, largely because the band appears entirely reliant on big choruses and brisk tempos to get by. They seem to figure that the more times you hear a hook, the greater chance it has of getting stuck in your head. As the old saying goes though, quantity does not always equal quality. Even when you are faced with a quality chorus that doesn’t necessarily mean the more times you hear it the better. If you were to eat your absolutely favorite meal every single day, eventually you’d grow tired of it and desire a little more variety. The small sonic experiments with synths and looping and horns don’t nearly provide the sort of variety you might hope for. None of the songs on this album make it past the 4.5 minute mark, but with how quickly they bounce from verse to chorus to verse, there are times where you just want to check and see how much time is left because it starts to feel like it’s been going on forever. The same can be said about the entire record, which may only be 45 minutes but feels closer to 60. Time flies when you’re having fun, and it moves like a snail when you’re not. The Drums may have approached “Portamento” with good intentions and the hope of sustainability/increased popularity, but the reality of the situation is that they’re trying too hard. Perhaps if they ease back on that throttle just a little, take their time and write more carefully layered melodies, success will find them instead of the opposite.

The Drums – Money

Buy “Portamento” from Amazon

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