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Tag: 90s

Album Review: EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints [Souterrain Transmissions]

EMA is better known as Erika M. Anderson, a native South Dakotan who has called California home for the last several years. Depending on how much you know about music and how many bands you can keep track of, you may have heard Anderson before, most notably with the band Gowns. Gowns broke up in early 2010, leaving behind five years of strong progress that included a couple albums and a whole bunch of mindblowing live shows. As with many bands where members are dating one another, if those relationships dissolve then so does the project. That’s not to say one breakup resulted in another in this particular case, but somewhere along the line the creative energy ran out. So Anderson has been working on her solo stuff for the last year or so, reviving a number of songs she wrote before and during Gowns’ tenure that never made it onto record, along with a handful of new ones as well. The final product is “Past Life Martyred Saints”, a sonically diverse, dark and angry 9-track album that’s markedly different from anything she’s done before.

The style is one we’ve heard before, and EMA is making her presence felt by unleashing “Past Life Martyred Saints” at the right time, just when the zeitgeist is craving for some 90s rock. Of course the sound is nowhere near as simple as that, and things get immensely complicated when you start taking the lyrics under consideration. You’ll notice something’s up straight from opening track “The Grey Ship”, which not only spans 7 minutes but goes through several evolutionary changes over the course of it. You’re misled at first into thinking it’s a wholly lo-fi effort, with Anderson’s voice and an acoustic guitar being the only elements present at the beginning, and sounding like they’ve both been recorded in an empty room with a shoddy microphone. As the track approaches the halfway point however, the vocals and guitar drop out as a fully plugged in and clear bass guitar takes over the main melody. A synth also works its way into the mix, and by the time Anderson’s vocals return, everything is crystal clear and in full fidelity. To its credit, “The Grey Ship” never stops tweaking itself until it’s officially over, incorporating everything from violins to loud electric guitars and overdubbed vocal harmonies. It’s an ambitious start to an ambitious record, even if nothing else that follows it ever quite displays the same potential.

Yet “California” enters and brings a whole new perspective to a record that was purposefully challenging to begin with. “Fuck California/You made me boring”, are the first words out of her mouth on a song that’s less about singing or structure or choruses and more just a sing-speak rant where you let out all your frustrations in an unfocused diatribe, come hell or high water. It’s an angry, sad, vengeful and homesick track with a dischordant backing instrumental that might as well be the soundtrack to the West Coast breaking off and sinking in a doomsday scenario. It’s about love “so fucked it’s 5150” and reciting lines from “Camptown Races” just to keep the random shit spewing and where a post-mortem examination leaves little clues as to how serious, sarcastic or true any of it is supposed to be. That’s exactly the point, because nothing in life is as cut and dry as we tend to see and hear through the glamourized versions of it on the big screen or through our stereo speakers. The messiness, the disorder, the sheer drama and how all of these things affect us and help or harm (mostly harm) our personal hopes and dreams is not only what “California” is about, but to an extent the entire record. You examine a song like “Marked”, in which a sparse and gritty melody backs lyrics like “I wish that every time he touched me he left a mark”, and likely the first thing that comes to mind is physical abuse. The hope that we might attain affection through being beaten may be disturbing, but the brutal honesty and masochistic tendencies are lurking in the darkest recesses of everyone’s subconscious and EMA is just prodding them. The same goes for “Butterfly Knife”, which appears to be a song about cutting and general bodily harm. At times “Past Life Martyred Saints” can feel like the auditory equivalent of a David Lynch, David Croneneberg or Lars Von Trier film, in which you have no real idea what the plotline or endgame might be, just that it’s confusing and disturbing and exciting all at the same time.

As dark and generally gruesome portions of this record might appear to be, the real lesson to be learned is that nothing is spelled out explicitly or with severe malice. Anderson has carefully thought these songs through and put them together with just enough vagaries to keep the listener guessing as to her true intentions. All great art is open to interpretation, and the multitude of viewpoints only furthers the idea that there’s much more depth and complexity to a piece than any of us can logically comprehend. So take “Past Life Martyred Saints” however you like, or don’t take it at all. The confrontational and ominous attitudes most certainly are not for everyone, but this record feels cut very much from the same cloth as classic 90s albums from artists like Hole (pre-crazy Courtney Love), Cat Power and early PJ Harvey or Liz Phair. The lyrics reveal much of the story, but the sounds that range from incendiary rock and roll (“Milkman”) to rusty folk (“Marked”) to grinding slowcore (“Red Star”) are all worth writing home about too. These varied textures help hold the mood in place while continuing to push on some boundaries as established right from the start. “Past Life Martyred Saints” may not be the most uplifting listen in the world, but it’s so well crafted and so reflective of the times we live in that there’s bound to be an audience for it. We’re all gluttons for punishment in our own different ways, and rarely has a record so full of melancholy and dismay felt so great to listen to.

EMA – The Grey Ship

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Album Review: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong [Slumberland]

Some of the greatest things about becoming successful are the opportunities that come your way as a result. Two years ago, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart earned themselves a huge wave of buzz thanks to their self-titled debut album. As you need to do when being the recipient of such praise, they followed their record with extensive touring and a couple of stopgap releases to keep everyone from forgetting about them. So an EP and a 7″ single later, POBPAH have readied their sophmore full length “Belong”, and this time things are different. They’re still signed to one of the more decidedly indie record labels around in Slumberland, but that doesn’t mean the record sounds that way. The ultra lo-fi haze that hung over their debut has been cleaned up significantly this time around courtesy of a 1-2 heavyweight combo of uber-producer Flood and uber-mixologist Alan Moulder. Those two are basically a dream team for the band, given their long history helping make some of their favorite records by some of their favorite bands – from My Bloody Valentine and Ride to The Smashing Pumpkins and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Together they’ve been responsible for more than a dozen classic records, and the hope is probably that “Belong” will wind up among them.

The change in The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is immediately noticeable from the very first notes of “Belong”, leading straight out of the gate with a broad, energetic and fun title track. Granted, POBPAH have always been those three things, just a little hazier and with a more “head down” mentality prior to now. Here not only are the guitars more polished, but so are Kip Berman’s vocals and the hook. This newer, fuller and more confident version of the band comes across like an announcement of purpose – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are going mainstream. Listen to the next two tracks on the album, “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” and the irrepressably catchy first single “Heart in Your Heartbreak” and those implied notions of going huge become that much more vivid. It also creates something of a debate amongst the independent music community about crossover acts and the consistent shunning of them. Embrace Kings of Leon when they put out “Youth and Young Manhood”, but patently reject them when “Sex On Fire” catapults them to fame and fortune. Just the use of the word “mainstream” has a taint to it, like bands that wear it are polluted with some sort of fungus. The thing about The Pains of Being Pure at Heart though, is that they’ve not yet reached the point of success on a massive scale. “Belong” sounds like it’s trying really hard to though, but before you have an adverse reaction to the thought, take under consideration that success on your own terms and from a tiny label such as Slumberland is an accomplishment thousands of bands can only dream of.

More importantly, the wealth of hooks and sheen on this record, translating to a super-easy-to-digest sound, only helps The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Instead of hindering their intentions, “Belong” finally feels like the first time they’re actually able to fully realize their sound. Underneath the haze and shy demeanor of their debut was this juggernaut, and now its legitimately exposed. Not only that, but the songwriting has improved this time around too. Instead of implying a number of things and leaving the listener to reach their own conclusions, we get direct references and things spelled out, though never to the point of treating us with kid gloves. These are songs that feel personal and upfront rather than colder and mysterious, and that’s a great thing. With that also comes the risk of running afoul by being too vanilla or alternatively too conceptually strident, and this record has only a couple of those moments. Everything else is above board and smartly written, in line with all the other elements at work here. The slower ballads like “Even in Dreams” and “Too Tough” particularly stand out lyric-wise, mostly due to their under-reliance on hooks to get their point across and the necessary drama to warrant toning down the upbeat charm that’s pretty much everywhere else.

Given that Flood and Alan Moulder (many times in tandem) were responsible for some of the best records of the 90s and since The Pains of Being Pure at Heart take many of their influences straight from that decade, the coming together of all these parties was divinely inspired. “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” comes across like a direct decendent of Ride, while closing cut “Strange” bears a strong resemblance to the more pop-friendly side of My Bloody Valentine. Slices of shoegaze mixed with slacker rock and heartbreak pop congeal to make for a very special record that’s wildly interesting and majorly successful. The real shame would be if this album didn’t score POBPAH the exact things they seem to be aiming for, which is tons of radio airplay, placement in commercials, and a devoted fanbase of millions. Prior to this they were just indie darlings, but here they’ve proven they can play in the same league with the big dogs and do it better than most of them to boot. So long as they don’t fall prey to the pitfalls that normally handicap great indie bands that blow up huge (sign to a major label, give in to “pressure” to change, show no love to their earliest fans, etc.), things will be a-ok. Otherwise, we might wind up living out the heartbreaking tale that is “Anne with an E”.

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – Belong

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Album Review: Yuck – Yuck [Fat Possum]

Considering the reverence with which everyone speaks about the 90s, it should come as little surprise that they’re experiencing a bit of a revival right now. Of course these various decade genre revivals are coming quicker than ever these days as more acts are paying close homage to their influences rather than adventuring out of the box a bit more and attempting something new. The 80s sprung back to life courtesy of The Killers and the host of other bands that rode the same wave to success. There hasn’t really been a singular trigger for this “return to the 90s” movement, but a whole bunch of reunions probably has something to do with it, as much if not more than 90s-leaning bands like Japandroids, Surfer Blood, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and No Age have these last couple years. At the very least, those of us that lived through the 90s and loved the music from it are now given a chance to in some senses re-live a lot of those things once again from an older and wiser viewpoint. Also, those significantly younger kids born in the 90s now have a good introduction to an era that they probably never knew in infancy. So long as we’re giving the 90s a second time over though, let’s try to be just a little more critical and careful about what bands thrive and which ones can go ignored. By now most of us should know better, right? It is with that mindset you’re invited to have a glance at the world of Yuck. Here’s a group of young guys from the UK that have clearly obsessed over guitar squalor and art-pop of the 90s and their self-titled debut album not only proves this but on that same token smartly elevates them to nearly the level of the greats they’ve learned so much from.

From the very first notes of energetic album opener “Get Away”, Yuck have instantly transported you back to a time when the fuzzed-out electric guitar was king. There’s a heavy crunch of a melody that envelops you as singer/guitarist Daniel Blumberg’s vocals come filtered through a layer of grittiness and crackle that has an almost Malkmus-esque Pavement feel. Additionally, there’s a squiggly, high-pitched guitar solo that emerges above the fray a number of times on the track that’s eerily reminiscent of J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. Not a lot of bands can pull that off convincingly, but Yuck do it not only on “Get Away”, but also on “Holing Out” and “Operation” as well without even blinking. Distortion pedals take over in full on “The Wall”, a pretty jangly number that’s quite catchy with a Guided By Voices/Pavement vibe to it. The vocals are so buried and undercut that at times the guitars just completely overtake everything standing in their way, much like the proverbial “wall” in the song’s title and lyrics. Acoustic guitars, crisp vocals and harmonies on “Shook Down” do a lot to change the vibe of the record and display some sonic diversity from Yuck in the early goings. It’s one of those sad-sack teenage ballads with just a hint of pep in its step despite the yearning aspects. It’s also a nice change of pace between the loud (but fun) guitar sandwich of “The Wall” and “Holing Out”. Teenage Fanclub meets Elliott Smith courtesy of the acoustic “Suicide Policeman”, just as an almost sunny melody complete with harmonies, xylophones and horns meets some not entirely upbeat lyrics. Still, the track is one of a handful of exceptional standouts that also includes the song that follows it, the classic Yo La Tengo-baiting “Georgia”. The male-female harmonies are used exceptionally well next to the energetic, distorted electric guitars and a stronger-than-usual rhythm section that really carries the track. For a song like “Stutter”, you get the impression you’ve heard a number of ballads just like it before from a number of different bands in a number of different places, but can’t ever quite put your finger on just when or where. That’s actually a big part of Yuck’s charm, in that they’re able to bring a whole lot of fond memories to mind but never so explicitly that you feel like they’re ripping somebody off. It’s just original and dynamic enough to work in their favor. There’s something R.E.M.-ish about “SUnday”, and most likely it’s the way the guitars function in the song because it’s definitely not the vocals. Either way, the song is just another one of the many late album delights hiding out where you least expect them. Just before closing things out, Yuck throws an instrumental our way courtesy of “Rose Gives A Lilly”. It does what any lovely post-rock inspired instrumental should do, which is hold our attention for the duration. Things move organically then into the 7+ minute post-rock/shoegaze finale of “Rubber”. The song trudges along in slow-burn fashion, like watching a house engulfed in flames via slow motion. There’s a dark and sinister quality to the sheer squalls of noise that wash over you time and time again, but it’s immensely beautiful too. If you’ve not yet seen the music video for “Rubber”, which is “dog-gone” interesting, it brings a new-found appreciation to oddities that you can’t erase from your head but kind of don’t want to.

A big part of what makes Yuck so interesting and impressive is the variety of sounds that they explore on their debut. Sure, every song is 90s-centric in one way or another, but other than that it’s a small challenge to box them in a sonic corner. One minute they’re doing a high energy fuzzed out rock song, the next an acoustic-driven ballad and the next a gob smacking post-rock jam. None of it is particularly upbeat or happy, but when you really think about it, the 90s weren’t either. The grunge movement, among other things, was born out of frustration with growing up. Hell yes it’s tough to be a teenager today, because until they can create a pill that gets all those crazy mood swings and relationship difficulties under control, it’s going to remain tough. Yuck may not have the grunge sound, but a lot of their songs do focus on breakups and other adulthood struggles. Just barely out of their teens themselves, a lot of what’s on this self-titled album may be drawn from autobiographical experiences. The only real problem with the lyrics are that there’s the occasional clunker in there that just doesn’t quite work despite their best efforts. Those moments are few and far between though, and instrumentally things are so strong and sharp that the words matter just a little bit less. Of the many artists reaching back to the 90s for inspiration, Yuck turn out to be among the strongest thanks to those seriously great musical chops. At the end of last year, a number of publications named Yuck among the crop of fresh new artists to watch for in 2011. The good news is that they were right, and the band’s debut record is one of the stronger things released in these first couple months of the new year. Whether it can sustain such momentum and stick with people all the way through the best of’s in December, we’ll just have to play a game of wait and see on that.

Yuck – Georgia
Yuck – Rubber

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Click past the jump to see the music video for “Rubber” (NSFW)

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