January 8, 2016
Here are Independent Ethos’ picks for the 10 best albums we heard in 2015. They are presented in no particular order because it is the only thing we would argue about with these records. Where available, all titles link to the item description page on Amazon. If you purchase via the link provided, you will be financially supporting this blog.
The guys in Deerhunter are not content to stagnate in their sound. Following the creepily noisy Monomania (Vinyl Matters: Deerhunter’s Monomania), the Athens, Georgia, based quartet, produced Fading Frontier, a diverse record featuring smooth, crystalline guitar lines that were missing from the last album. Bradford Cox’s voice sounds clearer without losing any of its sneer. The instrumentation includes a sparkling harpsichord (“Duplex Planet”) and things like castanets and droning synthesizers that add waves of atmospherics. There’s even some funky guitar work for “Snakeskin.” Deerhunter have never sounded more fun and cozy. (Hans Morgenstern)
Son Lux is Ryan Lott, a classically trained musician that has mostly created alternative music that fuses genres. From classical music to digitized pop sounds, Bones is an exploration that pushes boundaries in different directions. In this full-length album, Lott is accompanied by guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang, who help create an even bigger sound for Son Lux. But it is not only the sound that packs a punch, Lott wrote the lyrics for the album, which can dwell in dark moods. In “I Am the Others,” he asks “Am I the only one?/Where are the others?” Finally answering, “I am the only one.” The stand out of the album is “Change is Everything,” which has a sound that slowly builds up to a kind of controlled chaos. (Ana Morgenstern)
For those who miss the ’90s alternative rock of bands like Bettie Serveert or Th’ Faith Healers, Seattle’s Chastity Belt comfortably fill that void. Mixed for maximum reverb effect by Matthew Simms, the guitarist for legendary British post-punk band Wire, Time to Go Home, gets the slacker sound of ’90s down pat. It wouldn’t be what it is, however, without the swagger of lead singer/guitarist Julia Shapiro. The band’s second album is also just stuffed with great song craft. Take the syncopated layering of “Joke,” that piles on the instrumental tracks and is driven by Annie Truscott’s simple, high-toned bass line. The all-female quartet also display a keen feminist sense of humor we love. (HM)
During my first listen of Sufjan Stevens’ new album Carrie & Lowell, I was immediately transported to an intimate world inhabited by loss, grief, loneliness and unresolved childhood trauma. However, in the midst of what I would call one of the saddest albums this year, there is also lots of love, understanding and even redemption that give the album a positive spin. Carrie & Lowell is autobiographical and narrates Stevens’ early years, his relationship with his bipolar mother, Carrie, and his stepfather, Lowell. The sound is stripped down and folky and melodic with Stevens’ hushed voice — almost a whisper — a contrast to the enormity of the personal narrative woven throughout the album. Here’s another album that deserves repeated listening, as the songs compose a larger picture together. (AM)
With Depression Cherry, the Baltimore duo of singer/keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally take both a step forward in their song-craft while glancing behind. Gone are the live drums that made their former albums sound more organic. Instead, the duo brings back the electronic precision of the drum machine, a key element of their early sound. Despite something being lost in the lack of vital drums, Scally is in prime form offering entrancing guitar loops while Legrand shows she’s not afraid to go outside of her comfort zone of dreamy, hushed vocals with a bit of speak singing and layered, noisy voices. Read more in my full length review: Beach House grows into its own with Depression Cherry – a music review. (HM)
Viet Cong returned with a more sharply developed sound that leaves behind the psychedelic fuzz of their introductory 2014 EP Cassette and embraces the Canadian quartet’s icy post-punk DNA. Bassist/vocalist Matt Flegel’s voice is more upfront and delivered with a confidence missing from the early effort. The music is more diverse, recalling precursors like Gang of Four and Wire but also featuring stellar moments of experimenting with drone craft, like the epic “March of Progress,” which opens on propulsive drum pulses against a shifting hum of organ that sounds like Boyd Rice but switches to a quirky, layered bright finale that recalls the noisy, more deadpan parts of Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). (HM)
I don’t think I ever liked a Wilco album as much as Star Wars. The Chicago alt-rock group sprung their ninth album on fans as a free download back in July. They must have known they had a good record to give it away for free. It’s their least indulgent record ever at a brisk 34-minute running time. The songs all have their own catchiness with mostly fuzzed out guitar work, but “Satellite” stands among probably the greatest songs of the year. Building on a repetitive chiming guitar line and gradually swelling propulsive drums and rhythm guitars to an ecstatic freakout of noise that threatens to come undone while still hanging on to the song’s essential grove to the very end. Downright entrancing work. (HM)
Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Courtney Barnett has the ability to find the fun in banality, with lyrics that focus on the mundane. Her songs are easy to relate to and delivered in a speak/sing fashion that sometimes veers into melodic. Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit is Barnett’s debut full-length album in which her loose style is coupled with a grungy sound reminiscent of the ’90s indie scene. It is Barnett’s exceptional ability to deliver these effortless capsules of everyday life with remarkable wit and sense of humor that make listening to Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit a rewarding experience. (AM)
The quirkiest yet still one of the most catchy records came from Cory McAbee, the frontman of the Billy Nayer Show, a group known for using high concepts as springboards to their albums. McAbee even directed a few stellar indie movies as part of the albums (The American Astronaut, a sci-fi musical western stands as one of his best works). He is at work on another film with the help of fans, and his solo debut Small Star Seminar is the jumping off point for it. It’s a strange concept album in that it speaks to self-perception and self-worth while filled with fear and insecurity delivered with both incredible sincerity and wry irony. The music recalls the deadpan quality of Laurie Anderson and the intricacy of The Talking Heads. You can stream the entire album on Bandcamp, but it’s not available on vinyl. (HM)
Keegan DeWitt – Queen of Earth (Original Score)
Keegan DeWitt did not only add a mysterious, unsettling element to Queen of Earth, the latest film by Alex Ross Perry (An interview with Queen of Earth director Alex Ross Perry), but he has also created an album that can stand alone (so it’s a shame it’s not available on any format besides streaming). The haunting instrumental score is equally dark and beautiful. Songs unravel slowly and put you on alert or a different state of mind directed inward. De Witt said he used a wrenchenspiel because “it sounded broken.” Indeed, the album is a mood piece that perfectly transmits the mental unraveling of the woman at the heart of the film. Wind instruments and high-pitched chimes create jarring sounds woven through tense, suspenseful moments interrupted by melodic bells that settle the mood back down. An aural journey that is disquieting but gorgeous. (AM)
Year’s best vinyl reissue:
Red House Painters 4AD catalog
Consistently fetching hefty prices on the secondary market, the vinyl versions of the first four Red House Painters album, released by 4AD Records in the early to mid-90s, were finally reissued by the UK-based label on vinyl this year. The dynamic, moody music, sometimes boxed into the slo-core sub-genre of alternative rock, begs for the attentive and deliberate plays. There’s no better format than vinyl for such music, especially considering some songs peter up from hushed whispers and distant mumblings, building to epic musical meanderings (I’m thinking “Evil”). Also cool, 4AD finally released for the first video for the band’s first single, from 1992, the brilliant downer about growing old, “24.”
* * *
Finally, this weekend, we will share our best in film.
All images courtesy of the bands. Except Red House Painters reissue. That was edited from an image from turntablelab.com.
May 13, 2013
Thanks to NPR Music’s “First Listen” series, Deerhunter’s new album Monomania has had two weeks to seep in. It soon became apparent that this album was a marvelous continuation of the Atlanta-based band’s arty noise-pop sound. Any doubts about this album for this writer lasted only halfway through the band’s premiere of the title track on Jimmy Fallon’s late night show a few weeks ago. Deerhunter would give one of the most brilliantly subversive television performances I had ever seen. Lead singer/guitarist Bradford Cox hid most of his face under a disheveled mop of a jet-black wig. He gripped a microphone on a stand with his right hand and snarled through the song. But the scene-stealer was a missing middle finger on his left hand. His face mostly hidden, one could not help but notice the bandaged and bloody nub where one of his fingers should have been. Though later proven a stunt (he had just curled up his finger and wrapped it tight), this “prop” raised the performance to an entrancing level, especially when one has to think what this might do to the guitarist/songwriter’s process considering the wall-of-guitar sound of Deerhunter.
Then, a little more than halfway through the song, as the band dove into a roaring cacophony of dueling guitars, Cox walked off the stage. A cameraman followed him backstage, as his mates bent over their respective instruments to squeeze the life out of their strings, seemingly oblivious to the disappearance of their frontman. Guitars still wailing in the distance, Cox walked past a couple chatting in a backstage hall, snatched a cup from a woman yapping and either chugged the cup of water or threw it in his own face (I can’t recall, the video is no longer on-line). With the band members still pounding on their instruments, he walked over to an elevator and pressed a button, as “Monomania” came to a sputtering end. Fallon walked over to the stage holding a vinyl copy of the album. “Deerhunter, everybody!”
This is the genius that informs this music that I have consistently celebrated since I first heard of Deerhunter via their third album, 2008’s Microcastle. Three albums later and Deerhunter have not lost their touch to these ears. The new album opens with two noisy tracks with vocals so loud they rattle eardrums, distorting beyond perception of lyrics as guitars screech and shimmer, dipping into sporadic bits of feedback. Then comes relief in “The Missing,” a pretty melody crafted by guitarist Lockett Pundt, who also has a noteworthy solo project called Lotus Plaza. Pundt’s shy, breathy singing is the perfect complement to the delicate songcraft: pretty guitars and synths sighing an iridescent harmonic whoosh under the bright guitars. None of these songs on their own would feel as potent taken out of the context from one another. It’s a great bit of dichotomy. To reduce Deerhunter as a grungy shoegaze/noise pop outfit interested solely in reverb is to overlook the patchwork brilliance of the entire experience of its albums.
Last week, the vinyl version of Monomania arrived, and it provided yet another layer of revelation. What becomes immediately noticeable, thanks to the clarity of vinyl, is the acoustic guitar strumming within the din of the opening track, “Neon Junkyard.” There are also various whirs and fizzes that comprise the noise from unknown sources. The lyrics are also clearer, and the first line may as well be Deerhunter’s manifesto: “Finding the fluorescence in the junk/By night illuminates the day.”
The great thing about noise pop albums on vinyl is how the format clears up the din like a high-definition video screen. There is finesse in the racket. The clarity of the instruments, from the strum of acoustic guitars to the pluck of bass strings, pops out with not just crispness but dynamism. “Blue Agent” contains a staccato lead guitar line the oozes liquidity. However, its terse delivery features a new dynamic in each pluck on vinyl. The sonic range via vinyl turns what could be regarded as a cute gimmick in playing to elevating the song with a deeper character that sounds far more human and real.
“T.H.M.” opens with a delicate guitar line and soft beat decorated with a shaker. The song picks up on a sprightlier beat with hand claps as another guitar jumps in to add another terse melody before returning to the more spare verse. The kicker comes when Cox supplements his growling lyrics with a chorus of asthmatic coughs.
Side two opens with a billowing whir and then bright guitars drive the song along toward a chorus featuring an echo effect capping off the end of each line Cox sings before more guitar strums pile up to swell and suddenly back off and let the initial hook trot along to the song’s finale. It’s a brilliant tease of noise versus melody. In fact, this side more than side one features the catchier tunes and reveals the early ‘90s/late ‘80s noise pop sonic influence from bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement. However, whereas those bands were usually against keeping keyboards and keeping synths out of the mix, Deerhunter has no fear of using them to supplement its sound. Then again, there is that roar of an outboard motor that takes over from the crush of screeching guitars at the end of “Monomania.”
Beyond the gritty sound juxtaposed with brightness are the dark lyrics by Cox. That’s where the true heart of darkness of this album lies. As bright as “T.H.M.” sounds musically, the lyrics reference a violent death (“Took two bullets to the brain”) coupled with “coming out” and insanity. Throughout Monomania, the lyrics seem to wallow in misunderstanding and a frustrated solitude. It comes from a very real place, as Cox rarely sentimentalizes his homosexuality. Even Pundt’s only song, “the Missing,” fits the vibe of the album lyrically.
Deerhunter has always known its way around darker subject matter, and such deep exploration births an honest sound that does not always produce pure melody. The members of Deerhunter consistently prove themselves crafty with guitars and pop songs, but they know how to dig deeper to offer something much more dynamic with not only volume but cacophony. As ever, Deerhunter proves there is a beauty in noise. Monomania may have frayed and weathered edges but it’s representative of a real humanity beyond the songcraft.
The other day 4AD Records sent out an up-date regarding its stable of artists. Most interesting was news of Deerhunter recording an intimate live show in New York at the city’s premiere Soho Apple Store. The show occurred late last year, and it marked the first in a series of live performances at the store. Now, Apple has made the session exclusively available at their iTunes store as an 8-song digital-only EP, entitled “iTunes Live from Soho” (get it here).
Pitchfork has provided a preview of the session in the form of the opening cut, “Desire Lines” (stream it here). It’s my favorite track off the band’s last album, Halcyon Digest (buy it on vinyl here). However, when I first heard the smattering of applause and the “Hi, everyone. Thanks for coming out,” from singer Bradford Cox on the iTunes session, I was not hopeful for the sound quality. But then the song started, bounding by the booming bass guitar line, and in that second, I knew the sonics would be amazing. It’s particularity impressive for such a noisy song, filled with dense droning layers of guitars. I know no one right now who have created a dronescape as masterful as the last half of this 6:44 song. If anyone knows a band that can drone as awesome as Deerhunter do on this song, correct me.
The preview track cuts off at the end, so I imagine it flows nicely in the next track, “Hazel St.” Here are the rest of the tracks, by the way (and the cover art):
It’s an iTunes exclusive, so you’ll have to get it there, and only there. It’s a good price for $3.99 in the US, though I hear it’s as much as 8 Euros for those in Europe. For $3.99, I’m off to make my purchase.
September 28, 2010
4AD Records released Deerhunter’s new album (their fourth), Halcyon Digest, today, and you can stream it in its entirety here. With another album cover venturing toward the grotesque, the art belies the beauty of the music inside.
Halcyon Digest is a gorgeous collection of songs steeped in nostalgic rock ‘n’ roll, wafting on the ether of noise pop. It’s as if Deerhunter are mediums for early sixties rock, channeling the ghostly sounds of the Archies or the Beach Boys via My Bloody Valentine. Anyone familiar with Deerhunter figurehead Bradford Cox’s blog, will find his influences on full display, including his love for old style blues and pop as well as an appreciation of Kraut rock and noise pop.
Though Cox dabbles in other projects, these influences coalesce most originally in his most popular outfit: Deerhunter. The band’s new album, is no exception. In fact, as I am hearing it for the first time now– as I type– it may be their most accessible yet. But, never fear, there are some amazing droning moments in store, as well. “Desire Lines” starts out slow and poppy, but after a brief guitar solo, the song melts into a drone jam of chiming and groaning guitars whose hold can only be curbed with a slow fadeout.
The first single off this album has already been made officially available for download on-line. Using the password “tapereel” will get you access to this page where you can not only download the single “Revival” and its B-side, “Primitive 3D,” but also some studio demos. It takes some mouse hovering, but some cool mp3s are in store.