Mitski – Bury Me at Make Out Creek (Double Double Whammy, 2014)

via Mitski.

“aaaaaaaa”

There is a note of comfort in the sound of anguish. The moment Mitski Miyawaki’s distorted wail on “Drunk Walk Home” hits my ears, I’m in heaven. Not because it’s at her expense, but rather because I empathize deeply. I often find myself drawn to emotion captured in music, and that’s a key aspect of whatever I listen to. This is the kind of music that makes me so passionate about the subject in the first place, and so assured on my own path as a musician. That shriek is but one of many other brilliant moments on Mitski’s third record Bury Me at Make Out Creek (a nice nod to The Simpsons), easily the best from this SUNY Purchase artist.

Mitski’s music has remained as wholly beautiful, raw and vulnerable as it was on her last record, the brilliant Retired from Sad, New Career in Business. What has changed here is the aural dress she wears: now poppier, grungier, and rockier than before, as a reflection of this new partnership with the Double Double Whammy team. Mitski is a woman well aware of her emotions, and the strength of her desires, as she sings on “Townie”: “I want a love that falls as fast as a body from the balcony/I want a kiss like my heart is hitting the ground.” She is a woman who can sing about extremes, a woman caught between the throes of love and death. Maybe a death of a former self. But more importantly to prove the range of emotion that one can feel when falling in love, and the frustration of inaction and constancy. The song concludes on a beautifully brash epiphany, one that communicates a sense of self-reliance: “I’m gonna be what my body wants me to be.” In many ways, this is a coming-of-age record, mainly of coming into your twenties. “I was so young when I behaved 25/Yet now I find I’ve grown into a child,” Mitski states on single “First Love/Late Spring.” It’s a clever commentary on feeling more mature than your age when you’re younger, and suddenly not feeling mature enough when you get older.

There is a great range here, right from the delicate opening of “Texas Reznikoff” to the sheer noise that soon follows when the rest of the band kicks in. Mitski communicates a feral power on “Drunk Walk Home”, where her scream becomes digital noise, almost akin to the same noise that begins “Townie”. She has a knack for making the dark sound gorgeous. On album closer “Last Words of a Shooting Star,” she declares “And I am relieved that I left my room tidy/They’ll think of me kindly when they come for my things.” Sure, what she’s saying is heavy, but the way she sings it could easily deceive you.

This is an album of contrast, where beauty is found within anguish and darkness. All emotions are beautiful, and Bury Me at Make Out Creek proves that. With a voice that recalls the coos and warbles of Annie Clark and Angel Olsen, Mitski has become a recent favorite and a great inspiration to me. The woman who reminded me that “being an artist is putting your head down and doing the work,” that the whole point of being a creator is to create. True to her words, her next record will be released on Don Giovanni Records, and it will be eagerly anticipated.

Key tracks: “Texas Reznikoff”, “Townie”, “First Love/Late Spring”, “Drunk Walk Home”, “I Will”,
“Carry Me Out”

Where to Go from Here: Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness, St. Vincent – Marry Me, Sharon Van Etten – Tramp

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Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else (Carpark/Mom & Pop, 2014)

Let’s just admit this: Dylan Baldi is a man who knows how to dress a perfectly crafted pop song in fatigue, distress, anger, rage, and even sheer terror. At 31 minutes, Here and Nowhere Else largely captures this synthesis of spectacular songwriting and raw emotion. Despite losing one lead guitarist, the band sounds brighter and fuller than ever.

Much of the intensity of this now 3-piece can be attributed to drummer Jayson Gerycz, easily one of my favorite drummers to hear to date. Every song here rips, and quite possibly satisfies every grungy itch you’ve ever had. The feeling I get at the chorus of “Quieter Today” is akin to that of a kid having the first bite of what is to become his all-time favorite cereal. Some may have enjoyed their fair share of Rice Krispie Treats cereal, though I was a Reese’s Puffs man, through and through. Yet I digress.

As I’ve said, the drums on this record will tear through you. The tempo change on “Psychic Trauma” alone is enough to leave the hairs on the back of your neck grayed and standing on end. On top of that, “I’m Not Part of Me” may be the single best pop song to hit the indie sphere since Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness is the Move”. Even though much of the matter is dark and murky, the catchy melodies, driving drumbeats, and overall effervescent energy will leave you believing otherwise.

Key tracks: “Now Hear In”, “Quieter Today”, “Psychic Trauma”, “Giving Into Seeing”, “I’m Not Part of Me”

Where to Go from Here: Japandroids – Post-Nothing, No Age – Everything in Between, Pity Sex – Feast of Love

Small Wonder – Wendy (Father/Daughter, 2014) + Performance at Rough Trade NYC on 2/6/15

“All children, except one, grow up.” – The Adventures of Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie

Henry Crawford is, without a doubt, one of the strongest and honest musicians in the indie world today. As a songwriter and contemporary of Crawford (we’re about the same age), I have to say that he is one of my musical heroes, among the myriad talents of music collective The Epoch. As Small Wonder, Crawford crafts delicate, fragile, heartbreaking, tender, raw, honest, and exceptional bedroom pop. Such is the case with Wendy, an incredible piece of art, and my personal favorite record to be released in 2014.

I had an opportunity to see Small Wonder open for Natalie Prass on Friday at Rough Trade NYC in Brooklyn. I didn’t get a chance to stick around for Prass (darn L train and living in Jersey!), but the night was still an experience. It’s been said that Crawford’s live performance is very different from his recorded output, and that’s true. But that doesn’t mean it’s any weaker. It was exciting to see Crawford perform, stripped of synths, electronic beats, or backing vocals. Just him and an electric guitar. And despite one song that didn’t personally resonate with me (which utilized the repeated line “wanna be a black bear in American places”), the experience was emotional, intimate, raw, and beautiful. As an audience member, I felt like I was in a dialogue with Crawford, like he was able to break through the wall between performer and spectator. There were three songs I definitely did not recognize from his recorded output (but later scoured the Internet for, haw haw). One involved mentions of Johnny Cash and June Carter, another used the word “Psychosomaticon”, and still the other, (his last for the night) made reference to Franz Kafka. That song, “Amerika”, may be my new favorite of Crawford’s output, and it’s kind of a shame it’s not available on any release (to my knowledge). Crawford had a moment in his set where he told a story about how this older woman gregariously punched his shoulder on the bus, thinking he was someone from her high school. As she walked away, she said something along the lines of “Take care, Henry”, which was an intriguing anecdote. That story embodies what Small Wonder’s music is all about. That even by not knowing someone personally, you can still connect with what they’re saying in a way that their words could have emerged from your own mouth.

This common thread is visible in Wendy. Crawford is able to put his words and feelings (and subsequently the feelings of countless others) into this work. I’m a huge fan of the use of motif in music, whether a repeated lyric, or a melodic idea. There is a particular melody that travels through several songs on Wendy. It first appears in “Ball Lightning” on a synthesizer, then again in Crawford’s vocals on “Lost at Highway”, and finally in the bridge of “Until I Open My Wings”, where it is played on piano. In an album, it’s especially inviting to hear that repeated idea somewhere else on the record, because it’s almost like seeing an old friend spring up again.

Wendy is a diamond of a record, full of moments of synth-pop, raw gospel folk, and brutally honest and sobering lyrics. Crawford has a knack for saying what you’re probably thinking (if you are a twenty-something, like me, then especially so). It kind of feels like this is the interior monologue we all have, yet don’t talk about. In 2014, Wendy was a wake-up call of a record for me, and was perfectly timed with my entrance into the “real world”. On the hinges of my graduation, I felt like the air Crawford describes on “Until I Open My Wings”: “Don’t let me out into the world.” Above all, it is a testament to the redeeming and revitalizing power that music can have, as said on opener “Ball Lightning”: “With my strength spent, with my heart cold/I put my faith in rock and roll.”

These are songs that tackle hard topics. “Suddenly Suddenly,” for example, deals with the certainty of death, but it also functions as an affirmation of what life is all about: the journey that you take, even if it is “long and narrow.” On “Until I Open My Wings”, there’s a sudden epiphany of self-reliance: “You’ll have to do this on your own.” That’s the crux of this whole aural journey, and what it’s all really about, something Tom Robbins once said so eloquently: “We are our own dragons as well as our own heroes, and we have to rescue ourselves from ourselves.”

The most positive track, and the most life-affirming (yeah, yeah, I know that sounds corny) is closer “Wind Let Loose”. After all of the news flashes, wake-up calls, and reality checks we’ve had, we get this promising feeling, that in the end, there is always hope. And if you’ve fallen, you’ll get up stronger than ever. At the end of this record, Crawford states, “I no longer was emptied of all the things I thought I’d one day lose.” Even if things are lost or broken,they can be found and mended. What a beautiful thing that is to know.

Favorite Tracks: Literally every single one.

Where to Go from Here: Bellows – Blue Breath, Told Slant – Still Water, Sharpless – The One I Wanted to Be, and essentially anything put out by The Epoch. They’re a brilliant, creative bunch.

Cymbals Eat Guitars – LOSE (Barsuk, 2014)

“You’re taking two Klonopin/So you can quit flipping/And face our friends.”

So begins LOSE, the 3rd record of Jersey Boys by way of Staten Island, Cymbals Eat Guitars. In their most mature record to date, lead singer Joseph D’Agostino and the boys bring the sound they’ve become known for since 2009’s impeccable Why There Are Mountains, and complement it with focused and effective songwriting. LOSE deals most directly with life, and loss. The sobering knell that is your twenties, whether post-grad, or post-post-grad. The “wreck up ahead,” so to speak (as mentioned on stunning opener “Jackson”). Each of the record’s 9 songs is a beautifully heartbreaking meditation on the past stuttering the present.

LOSE is most notably about how life happens. How the people you used to know become warped and ambiguous caricatures of themselves. What has been most publicized in relation to this record is the death of one of D’Agostino’s closest friends, and other past ghosts that continue to haunt him. One resides on harmonica-stomper “XR,” the other on the twinkling heart-breaker that is “Child Bride”: the most tender, solemn number the band has written to date. D’Agostino manages to be one of the wordiest lyricists around without being verbose: each word really feels like it has its own purpose. Before his eyes flashes not the life he has lived thus far, but rather the life unlived that will never be.

What is most striking is how the band makes each of these separate moments sprawl and feel epic. “Laramie” in particular is an impressive 8-minute trip. Beginning at a steady lilt, building to a second half full of rock guitar solos and pyrotechnics. The middle of LOSE really showcases the myriad strengths of Cymbals Eat Guitars, whether tender and sensitive one moment, or shooting off into the cosmos the next. As someone in his twenties, I can absolutely relate to the sudden epiphany of realizing your own mortality. No statement can be as resounding to this sentiment as, “The panic sets in/Though nothing’s happened yet,” D’Agostino barks on later track “Chambers.” Even though it’s tough to face, as an artist, I believe that it is our job to interpret and channel the full gamut of the life experience. In a way, we’re fighting off our demons, and Cymbals Eat Guitars do just that on LOSE. Since when did loss and aging sound so triumphant? Could have fooled me, and in 2014, they did. They’ve been influenced by current acts, yet they’ve created something epic, something timeless. I believe with enough of a following, they will certainly go down as a rock band in this generation the same way that Rush and Led Zeppelin went down as rock bands for our parents.

Key Tracks: “Jackson”, “Warning”, “Child Bride”, “Laramie”, “2 Hip Soul”

Where to Go From Here: Titus Andronicus – The Monitor, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – Source Tags and Codes, Spook Houses – Trying

Natalie Prass – S/T (Spacebomb, 2015)

I’ve already discussed the timeless nature of Natalie Prass’ single “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” in my last post, but now I’m going to convince you why this is already one of the best records of the year, and further, why you need to hear this NOW. Recalling elements of Nashville country, Motown soul, R&B, rock, 70s pop, and sounds that could only be found in an old Hepburn movie, Natalie Prass is music that belongs to all ages.

There is a multitude of sound here, ranging from sweeping and grandiose (“Christy”), gorgeous and delicate (“Violently”), and punchy and riffy (“Your Fool”). Prass has an exceptional band of musicians backing her on this record, one that was years in the making. What makes this record especially admirable is how much time and work went into it. Spacebomb, the music collective that put out this record, calls Prass “a songwriter’s songwriter and a performer’s performer,” and truer words could not be spoken. While the record is highly arranged, and many of the songs delve between four and five minutes, there is still something for everyone on this album. Whether you’re getting over a breakup, or longing for that special someone, this is one to put in your play.

Key Tracks: “My Baby Don’t Understand Me”, “Bird of Prey”, “Your Fool”, “Why Don’t You Believe in Me”, “Violently”, “It is You”

Where to Go from Here: Julia Holter – Loud City Song, Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre is Evil, Kate Nash – Girl Talk

Alex G – DSU (Orchid Tapes, 2014)

21 year-old Alex Giannascoli is prolific, to say the least. A Philadelphia native, the singer-songwriter has become sort of a local legend, with a slew of material on his Bandcamp page. After several self-released albums, DSU (debut release on Brooklyn indie Orchid Tapes) finds Giannascoli more polished and focused than ever before. In its brief 33 minute run lies some of the most rich, vivacious, quirky, and heartbreaking downer pop I’ve heard all year.

While most of the record seems to boil down to a string of separate 3-minute-or-less sound experiments, what we actually get is a collage of artistic ideas that strike the balance between curt and fleshed out, juvenile and sobering. This is a warped yet beautifully sad soundscape that Giannascoli weaves, whether it is the macabre merry-go-round closing “Rejoyce” or the waves of horror movie shrieks that pervade “Axesteel.” The record manages to feel both current and yet a letter to singer-songwriters past. The guitar work on “Skipper” in particular feels eerily similar to that of Elliott Smith, a la “Kiwi Maddog 20/20” One of the album’s greatest and most centered moments is on “Hollow”. Amid the multitude of sounds and the flurry in which they pass, Giannascoli balances it all in a moment of sobering realism: “I know I’m hollow.” However, the moment that feels most out of place and quite possibly the most mature happens on album closer “Boy”.  Repeatedly reassuring us that he is “not the boy you knew,” Giannascoli makes a bold statement, one that serves best as the thesis for the record. As a man coming into his twenties with the pains of past experience, he is sounding his best here, and DSU feels like a confident step forward for this diverse and multi-faceted artist. I sincerely hope we hear more from him soon.

Key tracks: “After Ur Gone”, “Harvey”, “Black Hair”, “Sorry”, “Icehead”, “Hollow”, “Boy”

Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica (Software, 2011)

I’ve never been too much of a fan of ambient music, and even less of sample-based music. So the first time I heard “Sleep Dealer” on Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica, I couldn’t honestly say that anything captivated me on the first listen. Expecting something to grab me, to be deemed epic or exciting, I came out the other end of that first listening experience underwhelmed and disappointed. After hearing a lot of praise for Replica and subsequently streaming the LP, I can now say that this here is something really special.

What starts out seeming like a simple computer-based mish-mash of sound bites, vocal loops and ambient hums becomes a really awesome amalgamation of recorded music. And I do mean that last statement. The collection of sounds on this album are in fact music, whether you like it or not. It’s definitely unconventional and not what most listeners will be used to. From what I’ve read in an interview, artist Daniel Lopatin (who fronts the Oneohtrix Point Never project) took collections of various old advertisements and creating a variety of soundscapes from them. From his point of view, Lopatin said these songs collectively are futuristic recreations of songs and feelings of the past. The feeling is entirely there: what we get here is music that is entirely synthetic, taking from a collection of source material and re-interpreting it. I honestly can’t really explain why I’m so drawn to the potpourri of ambient sounds here, aside from the fact that it manages to continuously surprise me. Like I said before, this is music, and it’s ability to be surprising and exciting is part of what makes it music. There are repetitions, there are themes, and among it all there are even harmonic progressions in some of the songs. I especially love the vocal effects and the alterations in pitch on the vocal sigh on “Sleep Dealer”, the first track I ever heard from this artist. I do have to wonder what this kind of sound would be like if combined with an artist like M83 in a side project. I definitely hear the potential for a project like that in tracks like “Replica”, what with the different synth melodies that are so prominent there. If there is anything somewhat negative I have to say, it’s merely that the first half of the album (“Andro” to “Replica”) is stronger than the second half of the album (“Nassau” to “Explain”). In the end, that’s not really saying much, as Replica still brings forward a strong electronic talent, and a smattering of intriguing sounds.

Key tracks: “Andro”, “Power of Persuasion”, “Sleep Dealer”, “Remember”, “Replica”, “Nassau”, “Up”, “Child Soldier”

Battles – Gloss Drop (Warp, 2011)

This took me a little while to digest, but the sophomore effort from electro-post-rock group Battles is an incredible listen. It’s definitely an odd album to check out, and one that most people are more than likely to shy away from.

After losing their lead singer, the group reached out to several vocalists who guest on various tracks on the album. The guest spots, particularly from Matias Aguayo and Gary Numan (of “Cars” fame), are exceptionally fun romps. This isn’t to say that the album’s instrumental moments are anything not worth checking out, as the band more than steps up to plate here, from the slow build of “Futura” to the fun dance beats of “Dominican Fade”, to even the electronic drench and quirk that is “Rolls Bayce”. Needless to say, everything here is a load of fun, and that even includes the synth melody on “Toddler” and the almost avant garde “Sundome (feat. Yamantaka Eye)”. I doubt anyone who fixates on Top 40 or more conventional radio-friendly music will appreciate this, but to each his own. I’ll proudly be the one wearing my headphones, thrashing along in my chair to the nearly unpredictable splatters of sound here. This is definitely one of the best things I’ve heard all year.

Key tracks: “Africastle”, “Ice Cream (feat. Matias Aguayo)”, “Futura”, “My Machines (feat. Gary Numan)”, “Dominican Fade”, “Sweetie & Shag (feat. Kazu Makino)”, “Rolls Bayce”, “White Electric”, but seriously, everything here rocks!

M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Mute, 2011)

I’ve been a big fan of M83 ever since I first heard “Teen Angst” in a trailer for the film A Scanner Darkly. While I didn’t enjoy that film as much, I really grew to love M83’s music, from the keyboard/synth-heavy Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts, to the more alt-friendly Before the Dawn Heals Us, to even the 80s-tinged homage of Saturdays=Youth. Now, following his last great release, Anthony Gonzalez says he wrote Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming as a double album, due to his obsession with albums like The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. While I can’t say that Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming necessarily matches the feel and length of that album, I can say that what Gonzalez has crafted is really something special. He aimed to make this double-album a sort of soundtrack representation of himself, according to an interview on Urban Outfitters, and as a result, there are some great sounds here for fans and newbies alike to enjoy.

I was enthralled to hear “Midnight City” for the first time this past summer, and the rest of the album does not disappoint in the least. The first track on the album, featuring Zola Jesus, is an incredibly epic combination of everything we’ve come to know and love from M83. The song is complete with an odd yet absorbing spoken word segment (“We were you before you even existed”), that sets us up nicely for Anthony Gonzalez’s powerful and full vocal entrance. Plus, the addition of Zola Jesus makes a nice complement to this track, making it one of the best the album has to offer. The rest of the album is a bit of a nostalgic melange, ranging from prog-rock anthems (“Reunion”), to post-rock smashes (both “This Bright Flash” and “Year One, One UFO” are almost entirely instrumental, but they are some of the most captivating tracks here, grabbing you as much as Mogwai’s “George Square Thatcher Death Party”). The tracks”Wait” and “Soon, My Friend” remind me a lot of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which makes me think that Anthony Gonzalez is truly paying homage to that album on these songs. Plenty of tracks serve as transitional soundtrack filler, and I feel like the album could have benefited without some of these short ideas (particularly “Klaus I Love You”). I appreciate the ongoing themes of youth, innocence and dreams that are here, but some of it gets a little out of hand (“Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” in particular is a little laughable, yet the idea here is pretty impressive). Nevertheless, what is here is still an impressive collection of music, stretching through the spectrum of electronic and alternative music. If, like me, you enjoy a little anthemic rock to complement your mundane work week, then definitely check this out.

Key tracks: CD1 – “Intro (feat. Zola Jesus)”, “Midnight City”, “Reunion”, “Wait”, “Claudia Lewis”, “This Bright Flash”, “Soon, My Friend”

CD2 – “My Tears are Becoming a Sea”, “New Map”, “OK Pal”, “Splendor”, “Year One, One UFO”, “Steve McQueen”, “Echoes of Mine”

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy (4AD, 2011)

I’ve never really listened to too much of Annie Clark’s project, St. Vincent, although I know of the significant following she has in the indie community. She has worked with The Polyphonic Spree, Sufjan Stevens and even Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. I’ve listened to Actor (her album prior to Strange Mercy), and despite the considerable amount of backlash I’ve heard the album receive, I have to say it’s not a bad one. This may be a little of an unfounded opinion, since Actor was my first exposure to St. Vincent. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Strange Mercy is a rocking force to be reckoned with.

The powerful guitar work and digital production here combines to make something truly amazing. I can’t get over the distorted guitar riff in the introduction of “Chloe in the Afternoon”, which sets us up perfectly for a simple, yet entirely captivating percussion entrance that just tears things up. It’s this combination that lets us know as listeners that we are about to experience a sound both intense and important. The album is especially strong in its middle, with tracks like “Surgeon” or “Northern Lights” that match dreamy synth pads with fun guitar lines (I especially dig the synth explosions that occurs in a later portion of “Northern Lights”). A friend of mine has claimed that this album is Annie Clark’s Kid A, and I can definitely acknowledge this: Strange Mercy is a game-changer, not just for Annie Clark, but for alternative music in general. A sure-fire favorite of 2011.

Key tracks: “Cruel”, “Cheerleader”, “Surgeon”, “Northern Lights”, “Strange Mercy”, “Champagne Year”, “Year of the Tiger”