It seems like with each new year, the “Class of…” project gets stronger. That’s pretty much by design, though when I first introduced the Class of 2014 I wasn’t so confident it was going to work out. The Class of 2013 had set the bar almost impossibly high, what with now household names like Haim, Chvrches, Little Green Cars and Savages all part of that universe. Yet this past year’s group of 10 artists not only managed to hold their own, but one in particular rode the train to stardom and the third biggest selling record of 2014. And to think that when I made the introduction last Januaryu nobody had any idea who this artist was, to the point where a show was booked for a tiny 350 capacity venue and it took awhile to sell out. I’ll tell you all about that, and recap how the other nine artists in the Class of 2014 did after the jump!
Lo-Fang, aka Matthew Hemerlein, is a very talented guy. His early singles proved as much, showing off a diverse range of styles and instruments, all of which he played himself. Throw in some pretty catchy choruses, and you’ve got all the makings of a superstar. At least that’s what it looks like on paper. He may well rise above the fray and build an audience from the ground up, and having teen wunderkind Lorde in his corner to take him out on tour will undoubtedly help push things in the right direction. What’s unfortunate however is how Hemerlein’s debut album Blue Film turns a promising singer-songwriter and composer into a small disappointment. Turns out when you focus on only one or two aspects of your songs, there are other pieces that suffer.
If Blue Film was an entirely instrumental record, it would have turned out pretty great, what with the very Andrew Bird-like mixture of guitars, violins and synths. That’s the arena where Hemerlein really proves his worth as a musician. The other half of that includes vocals and lyrics, which is where this album really takes a turn for the worse. There are clunky and awkward lines in virtually every single song, and those mouthfuls are akin to someone trying to forcefully connect two puzzle pieces together that do not fit. “I never figured out how to / Unfold your paper cranes / Origami agony,” are kind of strange and ultimately meaningless lines from album opener “Look Away,” though the hook and gorgeous composition do a great job of averting total disaster there. While the nearly seven minutes of “#88” makes it a touch too long to be an official single, it’s one of the few tracks released in advance of the record that does a fantastic job of showing off Hemerlein’s musical diversity and influences. Unforunately it too suffers from a few lines that might as well have been pulled from the book of most commonly used lyrics.
It stands to reason that even the blandest of lyrics can be made better or more colorful by a clear emotional investment from the person singing them. No matter what the subject matter of a song, from reflections on the world around you to the morality of cheating on your significant other to trying to be a better person, it seems like Hemerlein treats everything with a calm and nearly apathetic tone of voice. Even just a hint of genuine passion or the stretching of his vocal range from time to time could have given some extra life to songs that desperately needed it. Then there’s the matter of the two covers on Blue Film, both of which seem like ill-advised choices. The first is “Boris,” from the female duo BOY, which is a very dark song about sexual harassment in the music industry. These women are singing about their experience, but in Hemerlein’s hands the perspective shifts to the creepy guy offering them Codeine. If covering “You’re the One That I Want” from the musical Grease seems like a bad idea for an artist who largely deals with orchestral pop, you’d be correct. Hemerlein slows the tempo down to a delicately composed crawl, which changes the mood from upbeat and fun to downright desperate. It’s fits in perfectly with the rest of the album for that very reason, but it begs the question of why he felt the need to do it in the first place.
Prior to signing with 4AD, Hemerlein was planning to release Blue Film as a mixtape. As most mixtapes are, it probably would have been free. When the label heard what he had put together, they wanted to release it as Hemerlein’s debut album. Hindsight being 20/20, maybe they should have waited for the next batch of songs before trying to provide a proper introduction to Lo-Fang. Surely whatever he does next will be better than this.
Class of 2014 update! If I can do these once a week I absolutely will, though obviously if there’s nothing new to report then I won’t bother. But this is the third week out of the last four that there’s been things going on with class members, so I’m happy to tell you all about it. Let’s start with Saint Pepsi. His new record Gin City came out yesterday, and is available on Bandcamp as a “name your own price” download. Obviously you can get it for free if you want, but I’d encourage you to chip in at least a couple of bucks because it will help. Lo-Fang’s debut album Blue Film was also released yesterday, and you can download it from iTunes or buy a physical copy from 4AD directly. Watch him perform “#88” live on “Letterman”, and catch him on tour with Lorde this spring! Meanwhile, FKA twigs is up to new things, including a collaboration with electronica duo Inc. that’s going to include a 7″ and a zine. Enjoy this video for an untitled song that they worked on together. Last but certainly not least, Perfect Pussy’s album Say Yes to Love will be out on March 18th, but you can hear a gorgeous new song from it called “Interference Fits” over at NPR. If you’re headed to Austin for SXSW in mid-March, don’t miss the band playing all kinds of shows for everyone from Pitchfork to Stereogum to SPIN to NPR. It’s just more evidence this year is going to be a big one for them. This year also might be a big one for some of the artists who are part of today’s Pick Your Poison, one of which also happens to have the word “pussy” in it. Don’t miss tracks today from 100s, Coldair (covering Justin Timberlake), Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., DNKL, Mannequin Pussy, Reptile Youth and Scary People. In the Soundcloud section after the jump, stream songs from The Faint, Fear of Men, Inventions, The Mary Onettes, MØ, My Morning Jacket (covering Songs: Ohia) and Shamir.
The “Class of” project originated at the start of 2012, as I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s attempting to figure out exactly what there was to look forward to in the coming year. Always on the prowl for the next big thing, there was a lot to be excited about. So I decided to choose a manageable 10 artists whose career I would keep close tabs on throughout the next 12 months. When that turned out well, thanks in no small part to now nearly household names such as Frank Ocean and Grimes, the hope was to keep going. 2013 was going to be bigger and better than the previous year, and by all accounts that turned out to be true. Haim, Chvrches and Savages turned out to be the heaviest of the heavy hitters, though in the end nobody really performed poorly. In fact, last year’s class was so successful, I had concerns about 2014. How do you improve on near perfection? The short answer is, you don’t. You close your eyes, keep going, and pray for the best. And truly, I do believe that the Class of 2014 is filled with the best that music has to offer (that I’m aware of). These ten artists are interesting, innovative and actually pretty fun when you get down to it, and I anticipate greater realms of success for each one in the coming year. So join me after the jump, and allow me to introduce you to the Class of 2014!