Sunday, November 30, 2014

28 Days of Christmas: Sally Shapiro - "Anorak Christmas"

Remember when Italo Disco was all the rage? No, really, I can't remember. I remember it happening and being a thing for a brief moment before ebbing back into oblivion, but I know Sally Shapiro's Disco Romance was right there at the heart of it. I don't remember the rest of the album, but I still listen to "Anorak Christmas" every holiday season. It plays to the twee pop sensibilities of my heart with a really pleasant, synthpop backing track and dancebeat drums and full holiday spirit!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

28 Days of Christmas: Atom and His Package - "What We Do On Christmas"

I know what you're thinking: This seasonal list is comprised entirely of Christmas songs by Jewish artists (Both this and Save Ferris's "Christmas Wrapping" make reference to watching movies and eating Chinese food!). I promise it's not, although come to think of it, that's a great listicle in the making! And this track would be right at the top. Atom (and we can assume, his package) have an absolute ball with "Jewish Conspiracy" and postulates that the Jews do all of their planning for world domination on the one day when no one else is around. I feel like a lot of my humor was forged listening to Atom and His Package when I was 16, and listening to this song for the first time in years I'm feeling a strong urge to unearth his discography.

Friday, November 28, 2014

28 Days of Christmas: Save Ferris - "Christmas Wrapping" + Black (Metal) Friday

Is it sacrilege that I prefer Save Ferris's reworking of "Christmas Wrapping" than the Waitresses' original? Is that someone anyone would ever consider sacrilege? Either way, this one always made a showing on my yearly Punk Rawk Xmas mixes I made when I was a teenager. Honestly, this whole project of posting a Christmas song every day until Christmas is just a way for me to relive the moment where realized that just because you're a punk rock kid you don't have to hate Christmas.

However, working in retail will crush anybody's Christmas. You can feel it being collectively crushed when Paul McCartney & Wings' "Wonderful Christmastime" plays on the store radio for the fifth time that day and you can hear a coworker all the way at the back of the store moaning, "NOT AGAIN!" Thanksgiving was yesterday and what was I thankful for? My beautiful family, of course! But coming in a close second was NOT HAVING TO WORK RETAIL DURING THE HOLIDAYS FOR THE FIRST TIME IN SIX YEARS! As a shift leader in my last two years at Half Price Books, a big part of my responsibilities was trying to keep everyone sane during December. A lot of it was me trying to talk people off the ledge when "I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas" played for the third time that day (HPB Radio had like 40 Christmas songs that played not on an endless loop, which would have been so much better, but seemingly at random) and I would just say, "There there, it will all be over soon. The universe will end someday, too, as will this godforsaken music. You'll get through this, just think of oblivion." I know that sounds like I'm kidding, but I swear to God I said something like that last year. Though I was able to turn the Christmas music to white noise after about a week, I was not immune to "Wonderful Christmastime." Just yesterday it came on the radio during dinner and I froze up as my body relived those dark days. That exceedingly dumb song soundtracking the chaos of everyone and their mom being so totally helpless and so totally impatient that I felt I might explode in a ball of Christmas rage... I digress.

For the workers of Black Friday, I have curated a song for you. A song that channels your inner Krampus and appeases him so he does not spread his dark wrath across the realm. I'm not even kidding when I say that this song was playing on an infinite loop in my head last holiday season and, after a particularly rough day of dealing with inept Christmas shoppers, I would go out to my car and put this on full blast. For the time being I have escaped that eternal circle of wrath, but there are many still trapped in its icy talons, and for those people I say take a deep breath, try not to strangle the woman who wants the discount but doesn't have the coupon, and play Burzum in your head.

Arcade Fire - Funeral

Arcade Fire - Funeral
Merge, 2004
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2014
Price: $7.50
There are a few albums in my life that take me back to a very specific time and place and sketch the scene with vivid detail. This is one of those albums. The hype machine had been churning Funeral for a couple months before I heard it, but from the first few chords I knew everything was about to change. I never thought the Arcade Fire would get as big as they did, and while I knew they had a ton of ambition, I didn’t know that their ambition was something that couldn’t be contained. For a band that released such an intimate debut, the grandiose trajectory their career has taken feels detached from Funeral. In ten years Funeral hasn’t lost a step. It still stirs up all the same feelings and really feels like the classic I suspected it would become. Sometimes records don’t hold up. You listen to them ten years later and there’s a sense of nostalgia. Funeral feels nostalgic, but it’s for a specific personal nostalgia not one of the era the album defined. The era of grandiose and theatrical indie rock that lived and died by its fierce emotional conviction. These days, I put this album on the turntable without even thinking. I see that cover and I just say yes. And there it is, and Win Butler singing about people digging tunnels in the snow that has buried a town reminds me of those pictures from Buffalo where people tunneled their way out of their snow-draped homes. On “Wake Up” I immediately recall Butler jamming the mic stand through the drop ceiling at the Jackpot and how that hole was there for years. Every time I went to a show at the Jackpot I saw that hole and remembered that Arcade Fire show fondly. That Arcade Fire was able to top this album is one of modern music’s greatest triumphs. Black Mirror was met with a bit of the chilliness that you’d expect coming off a masterpiece but The Suburbs won a goddamn Grammy. Which is nuts. Still, no matter how big this band gets, Funeral is always going to be the most intimate record I’ve ever heard.

"Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)"

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Pogues - Rum Sodomy & the Lash

The Pogues – Rum Sodomy & the Lash
Stiff Records, 1985
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2014
Price: $7.50
You know the Pogues are probably pleased as piss that their music is the best possible thing anyone could ever play in a bar. If you close your eyes you can see it. A busy night, some roughnecks going toe to toe, and “Sally Maclennane” comes on the jukebox and there is peace, love, and understanding. How could you not raise a pint to that song? Or this album? I’m a big fan of highlighting my shortcomings as a professed music lover, and never truly paying the Pogues any mind is sinful. There are a few of their tracks I’ve heard over the years and enjoyed, of course (I’m human, after all), but listening to Rum Sodomy & the Lash in its entirety on a Tuesday morning has scarred me irreparably in the best possible way. You can practically feel Shane MacGowan stumbling down the road in these songs, turning out one of the most compelling vocal performances of all time. I mean, you think it’s all fun and games, let’s go down to the pub and drink and be merry and then you get to “And the Band Played Waltzing Matlida” and this unsentimental and woozy war story breaks your heart into a million little pieces. It makes me deeply long for a day when the Pogues succeed U2 as the Band of Ireland.

"Sally Maclennane"

Monday, November 24, 2014

Gut Feeling: Bell Gardens - Slow Dawns for Lost Conclusions

Bell Gardens – Slow Dawns for Lost Conclusions
Rocket Girl, 2014
Apparently, this is what happens when you take a couple of well regarded ambient electronic artists and have them make a folk record, and the results are disarmingly gorgeous. Stars of the Lid’s Brian McBride and minimal techno journeyman Kenneth James Gibson combine to craft dreamy and elegant Americana in the slowcore vein of Low but with more pedal steel. I’ve spent many an afternoon drifting in and out of naps listening to the expansive ambient soundscapes of Stars of the Lid, and while there are plenty of ambient elements that populate Bell Gardens’ second album, these richly textured songs are surprisingly straightforward. Like the discography of Stars of the Lid, Slow Dawns for Lost Conclusions is perfect nap music. It sounds like a slight, I know, but it’s damn hard finding an album peaceful enough to encourage rest. While incredibly deft, these atmospheric songs have a calming effect. I want to sleep inside them like a sensory deprivation chamber. Come to think of it, maybe I’d call this music Sensory Deprivation Chamber Pop. That sounds just about right.

RIYL: Low, Stars of the Lid, the Dead Texan, hardcore napping

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Gut Feeling: La Dispute - Rooms of the House

La Dispute – Rooms of the House
Better Living, 2014
On Rooms of the House La Dispute’s strongest suit is making you feel like the world is ending and that it is ALL YOUR FAULT. They do it with an uneasy blend of post-hardcore, sing-speak verses, and all the resonance of the throwback vintage emo that is very in vogue at the moment (a trend that will surely wear itself out by the end of next year but, for the moment, is welcome and contributing to some really great records). It’s like walking through a decrepit old house where the floor could give out at any second. Everything is on edge, and the controlled sense of menace La Dispute manufacture on this record is an incredible feat.

Album standout and lead single “For Mayor of Splitsville” is perhaps the most perfect representative for Rooms of the House as a whole. Vocalist Jordan Dreyer speaks then screams then sings then all three. Rooms of the House is about a disintegrating relationship that seemingly transcends time and space but there, on that song, in that moment, everything is made crystal clear. The guitars unassumingly lurk in the verses only to strike with deadly force in the chorus, providing a roll of quarters to the punch of Dreyer’s vocals on lines like “Now I’m proposing my own toast/ Composing my own joke for those married men/ Maybe I’m miserable, I’d rather run for mayor of Splitsville/ Than suffer your jokes again.” These songs are cruel and uncomfortable and compelling.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of a good concept album. Moreover, I’m a fan of break-up albums. When the two collide, I’m always there to soak up the misery. Rooms of the House makes the Alpha Couple in the Mountain Goats Tallahassee look like the Ozzie and Harriet.

RIYL: Cursive's Domestica, first wave screamo, being put through an emotional ringer

"For Mayor of Splitsville"

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Gut Feeling: TV on the Radio - Seeds

TV on the Radio – Seeds
Harvest, 2014
In my head, TV on the Radio is way more avant-garde than they actually are. Somehow I forget that these guys aren’t avant-garde so much as innovative. As in the most innovative rock band currently going. Is that hyperbole? Overstatement? I’m listening to Seeds and wondering how a band so effortlessly brands their music with so much soul, excitement, cool, and straight-up kickassedness. Seeds isn’t as out there as their much lauded masterwork Return to Cookie Mountain, but even though it’s a pretty straightforward effort it’s one of the best rock records of the year. What TV on the Radio do feels effortless in a way that it overshadows how hard these guys work to make the music sound that way.

Somehow or other I missed the band’s 2011 album Nine Types of Light. Like totally missed it. Didn’t hear a single. Didn’t see the cover art. I didn’t even know it existed. I thought Seeds was the follow up to Dear Science (and thought “Damn, that’s a long time in between records”). It’s really been ten years since Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes? Ten years since TV on the Radio revealed itself to be on an entirely different planet than every other rock band. Tunde Adupimbe’s vocals anchor TVOTR’s art rock tendencies in a prism that can go from soulful (“Careful You”) to energetic (“Lazerray”) to borderline menacing (“Happy Idiot”) in damn compelling fashion. Of course it’s not just the vocals, because these guys are more than adept at churning out some of the tightest compositions you’re likely to hear anywhere and guitarist/producer Dave Sitek is one of this era’s producers of note. There’s not a lot of envelope pushing going on here, and given the quality of the songs this isn’t an issue.

"Careful You"

"Happy Idiot"

Monday, November 17, 2014

Gut Feeling: Frontier Ruckus - Sitcom Afterlife

Frontier Ruckus – Sitcom Afterlife
Quite Scientific, 2014
Frontier Ruckus’s third album—Eternity of Dimming—was my favorite album of last year. While I try to make it clear that my year-end lists are entirely subjective and that I’m not trying to isolate the “Best” album of any given year, I objectively think Eternity of Dimming was the best record of 2013. In his songwriting Ruckus front man Matthew Milia excavated the memories of his youth with precision and detail so as to capture them forever before they faded away. It’s a behemoth spanning two discs, sporting a running time over two hours, and boasting a lyrics sheet with more than 5000 words. I listened obsessively, savored the detail and twists of phrase, and appreciated the beauty of a songwriter digging down to his very core.

I feel like I’m not ready for that album’s follow up, but it’s here, and it’s great! I know it’s great because I’ve spent the six or so go throughs I’ve had with Sitcom Afterlife trying to poke holes in it. It’s not as intensive as Eternity of Dimming—and honestly, that album was a once-in-a-discography kind of thing—and the comparatively brisk runtime makes the songs so much easier to digest. There’s also a lot of rock solid growth on display here. The band pushes past the folky, bluegrassy blend of their roots into pure pop territory and the results are a thrill. Horns lurk around every corner and give Milia’s as-usual magnificent songwriting a new kind of backbone. The songs are fuller, richer, and overall it sounds like a band clicking into a new mode with confidence.

The most drastic change is the re-addition of band member Anna Burch on harmonies, which provide equal amounts of loveliness and tenderness. If you’ve seen videos of Burch and Milia singing together, their chemistry is obvious, and their harmonies are a big part of why Sitcom Afterlife is such a worthy successor to such a hugely ambitious record. The whole band’s chemistry is obvious, goddamnit. It’s mind blowing that they are still toiling in obscurity, because the music is just too damn good. It just blows my mind that they’ve released four records, each better than the last, each brimming with these gorgeous lyric sheets and forward-thinking Americana, each a testament to a specific time and place that is really every time and place. Just listen to David Jones' outrageous kinetic banjo line that serves as the spine to the album’s thunderous centerpiece “Crabapples in the Century’s Storm.” Where else is that happening?
Frontier Ruckus established themselves on Eternity of Dimming, but Sitcom Afterlife is definitive proof that this band should be your new favorite band. Their songbook is a treat and their following their evolution has been one of the most severe joys I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in the last couple years. If they don’t catch on, oh well. I’ll just sit here thinking about how the big, cyclical closer “A&W Orange and Brown” is their “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and making a mythology for this little Michigan quartet and enjoying their music with the utmost satisfaction. 

"Sad Modernity" 

Listen to the album in its entirety over at Under the Radar.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Gut Feeling: Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire for No Witness

Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness
Jagjaguar, 2014

I’ve always compared Angel Olsen to the great forgotten lady folksingers of the 70s (or at least those featured on Numero Group’s Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies of the Canyon compilation from 2006) but on Burn Your Fire for No Witness she sounds like the reincarnation of Leonard Cohen (yeah, I know, he’s not dead but you get the picture). You can practically hear her channeling the man himself on “White Fire,” which is so densely moody you can barely move around in it. You just have to sit there in that hot tub of smoky atmosphere and take it. Cohenesque-ness aside, this is no imitation act: Angel Olsen is the real goddamn deal. While she can brood with the best of them, the sonic diversity of Burn… is what makes it such a compelling listen and even on more upbeat tracks like “Forgiven/Forgotten,” the intensity is always cranked to the max and consistently comes across as a songwriter wise beyond her years.


"White Fire"

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Gut Feeling: Serengeti - Kenny Dennis III

Serengeti – Kenny Dennis III
Joyful Noise, 2014
Kenny Dennis returns for another chapter of his wild and crazy life. “Hot dog for lunch/ Hot dog for dinner/ Don’t need breakfast/ I ain’t no beginner,” he intones on the opening track “No Beginner.” While this simple life of hot dogs for dinner might make it seem that Dennis is settling for complacency, the third-ish proper installment in Kenny Dennis’s journey chronicles his wild ride back to fame and fortune. Of course, in the case of KDz, fame and fortune consists of touring the mall circuit and winning talent shows with his new project Perfecto—a collaboration with his quasi-mentee Ders.

On Kenny Dennis III, Kenny lives by the mantra “Win big/ Lose big/ Can’t break even/ No even stevens.” For someone who has been out of the limelight as long as Kenny has, the newfound success is as addicting as the bennies he can’t stop popping and by album’s end Kenny is on the verge of losing it all. His lovely lady Jules, O’Douls, and probably even some brats. For those uninitiated with Kenny’s saga, it’s best to start from the beginning (or at least listen to “Dennehy” which paints a pretty lifelike portrait of the man with the mustache).

On the sonic side of things, Serengeti once again enlists Odd Nosdam to craft a set of diverse beats that keep Kenny Dennis III rolling even when the record devolves into a long stretch of spoken word tracks by Anders Holm (the same Ders from Workaholics) that are hysterical when they’re broken up (as they were on The Kenny Dennis LP) but approach zone-out territory here and would be totally lost if it weren’t for the fantastic beatcraft. It’s a surprisingly subtle record for a character with an ego as big as lake Michigan, and repeat listens prove it’s a worthy installment in life of this incredibly strange character. I’m eagerly awaiting Geti’s next non-Kenny Dennis follow-up to 2012’s C.A.R., but until then, I’ll take as much KDz as I can get my hands on.  

"No Beginner"

Monday, November 10, 2014

Gut Feeling: Lagwagon - Hang

Lagwagon – Hang
Fat Wreck Chords, 2014
Pop-punk (especially the brand championed by Fat Wreck Chords) gets a bad reputation. It’s generally perceived as dumb, low class, and something for teenagers. OK, the teenagers thing is true. I spent my mid-teens fawning over NOFX, Lagwagon, No Use for a Name, and became a disciple of Fat Wreck. Fat Wreck is where I cut my teeth as a music appreciator, and as a result I’m still very much in love with pop-punk and always on the lookout for new bands who put their own unique spin on this ever looked down upon genre. But I also get excited when my old favorites put out new records because somehow, dudes like Joey Cape and Fat Mike never really change. Sure they get older, and maybe they mature (Cape definitely has, Fat Mike is still making his living peddling dick jokes and that’s totally fine!), but ultimately this stuff sounds the same.

There is something very comforting about the way Hang sounds like it could have been made in 2001. The production is cleaner, but it pulls elements and energy from early Lagwagon records like Duh and Hoss. I’m a firm believer that Joey Cape’s more subdued side project Bad Astronaut made him a great songwriter. Lagwagon’s songs were always really good before Bad Astronaut, but afterward they had a newfound depth. Lagwagon’s most recent albums Blaze and Resolve were surprisingly deft affairs, and Cape has continued to hone his craft with solo albums and a pair of solo albums with Tony Sly, whose tragic death in 2012 haunts Hang.

Though Hang isn’t entirely about Sly’s death, the short, heartbreaking acoustic opener “Burden of Proof” makes it seem plain as day and the blistering follow-up “Reign” expounds on the grief. “While you’re leaving/ The rest of us will be here grieving,” Cape sings in his trademark timbre that hasn’t changed a lick in 25 years. It’s one of the most emotionally resonant gut-punches of 2014. Not all of Hang is this grim, however.  (In case I totally misread everything, at the very least the emotionally walloping "One More Song" is definitely a tribute to Cape's late friend).There’s a fair bit of heavy melodic hardcore peppered in that’s a bit of a drag (the track “Drag” is actually a perfect example), but tracks like “Burning Out in Style” serve up the levity of clear-eyed pop without giving up any of this album’s hard earned gravitas.

"Burden of Proof"/"Reign"