4/23/2017

Review: Slowly Please - "Chalk Farm"

Slowly Please - Chalk Farm
(2017 Self-Released)

It's hard to be as dedicated to sedation as Nicolas Derbaudrenghien. From his glacially sized and paced post-rock arrangements to the yawning gusts of feedback that occupy them, each instrumental inhabitant of the Belgian shoegazer's output dutifully submits to the will of his solo project's name -"Slowly Please". His debut album, Chalk Farm, is a radical exercise in patience, kneading sluggish guitar riffs into their surrounding dronescapes for absurd lengths of time that somehow pass as quickly as pop tunes. With earbuds wedged into your canals, the record is a time-machine that only travels forward, transporting its passenger a solid hour into the future before they even realize they've left. 

Intro track "Tattoo" slowly burns as if mounted on a rotisserie, its drums muffled like a gloved hand's punch. A film of sustained keyboard first forms on the tune's surface, followed by the sort of gradual guitar bloom employed by older Scottish acts like The Twilight Sad, Mogwai, or even Cocteau Twins. Derbaudrenghien's vocals make a couple clutch cameo appearances across these initial 12 minutes of stagnant sludge, coming up for air long enough for the listener to take a breath and dive back into the distorted depths.

"Keep Straight on this Road" pulls more fuzz into its orbit, lassoing shrill peals of static with a galloping bass lick. Slowly Please resembles a version of Slowdive less constrained by traditional song-structures here, causing hefty chords to collide like tectonic plates. Thanks to the massive temporal space they have to work with, the ideas within this album have room to grow mountainous and dangerously saddled with kinetic energy.

Though not the best offering on the record, Chalk Farm's titular song stands at an impressive half-hour, heaving its earthen guitar slides into a quarry eroded by spaced-out snare hits. Field-recorded textures burrow their way into the piece, creating the atmosphere of an artificially-lit office filled with cubicles and fake ferns - it is woozy; trance-inducing even. It's the narcotic trance of the last hour of a work shift, creeping its way into nothing.

4/17/2017

Review: Count to Altek - "Sestina"

Count to Altek - Sestina
(2017 Self-Released)

Something's brewing. 

In the percolator with your ritual Folgers. In the creek bed, stirring up the caked moss. In the knotted shadows of the forest thicket. Bird calls cut through the cracked window like phone notifications in your pocket. As you butter the sacramental toast in remembrance of warm winter sleeps beneath layered blankets, you let the coffee cool a bit for the first time in months. Spring rises from the divoted lawn as a mist, and the forest creatures that live just beyond its borders know this. Somewhere in the woods, The last cool drafts of the year groan through matted branches, bleak and damp as the scurrying of small mammals forms a vast polyrhythm against the foliage. Nature spits out its spoken-word poetry in swiveling stanzas. These riffs rotate like phrases tacked on the ends of a sestina's formulaic construction: each repetition is a re-contextualization. No two reverb-laden tones are exactly alike in nature's liturgy.

Recorded deep in the woodlands of Northeastern Ohio, Count to Altek's latest EP effort is a notable departure from the project's back catalog of avant-black-metal. Though still quite spooky, Sestina trades monastic drones for introspective jazz riffs that recall the early work of A Grave with No Name. Opening tune "Adeline" drapes its limp piano chords atop the half-hearted clatter of a splash cymbal: an offering culled from the band's scarce crop of enthusiasm. It wriggles lifelessly like the arm you've accidentally slept on, attempting to gingerly shake out its pinpricks. Keening glossolalia bubbles at the surface of this stagnant puddle of sound, never getting the chance to come up for air. 

Though barely held together by any sort of beat or repetition, "Adeline" is able to envelop the listener in its bold nothingness. It is as incidental as a scattering of fallen leaves or knotty tree-roots. The music spreads itself to where it needs to be.

Sandwiched in the middle of Sestina, "Ripples of Gemstone" flirts with structure, leaning its glistening keyboard improv against a simple 4/4 beat. There's a surface sense of magical whimsy evident here - the sort of sun-refracted warble that accompanied Mr. Rodgers' imaginary trolley excursions to the Land of Make-Believe. Booming pulses of kick drum frighten Count to Altek's arrangements into being: this is the voice of springtime genesis.

Sestina's final track, "Animal Statue", is climatically creepy, borrowing its minimal-jazz cues from Bohren and der Club of Gore. The interplay between instruments is at its most dissonant and clustered here, emitting a sinister residual ambience that crawls across the surface of the listener's skin like a slug. The track's drums gradually grow louder as they begin to devolve into an arrhythmic jumble of snare hits. The piano fades to black. Night falls on the forest. 

Though untamed and free-form, Count to Altek's new record isn't too challenging or imposing to listen to casually. In fact, it seems more suited to passivity than it does deconstruction. Sestina is the ideal soundtrack to the creative process: an amorphous rush of mystic inspiration, injected straight into the brain.

4/13/2017

Review: Valerie Kao - "Home"

Valerie Kao - Home
(2017 Self-Released)

My friend John's recent re-discovery of Beach Fossils and a particularly Spector-ian haul at the Northside Record Fair have left me nostalgic for the opaque fuzz-punk of early 2010s acts like Crocodiles, Dum Dum Girls, and Blank Dogs. Like most successful artistic communities, the turn of the 21st century's garage-rock rock revival sprouted forth from an accessible, easy-to-replicate sound: reverb-soaked power chords, primitive lead guitar melodies and ghostly vocals cloaked in instrumental residue. Projects were distinguished by subtle aesthetic differences rather than their songcraft. For fledgling indie bands in the era dominated by Burger Records and Captured Tracks, cover artwork fonts and small tweaks to the settings of effects pedals asserted their significance over lyrical content. Think Bandcamp's vaporwave scene or the glut of melodic trap-rap flooding your Soundcloud feed. Simplicity and homogeneity breed mass participation.

That's why it's so refreshing to see California's Valerie Kao emulating the scene's sound post-buzz. Her debut LP, Home, which chronologically documents her progress learning to play guitar, culls the Polaroid-filtered drone of Vivian Girls and injects it with more contemporary production techniques. Thunderous bass riffs charge their way through thick layers of haze like icebreaker ships, leaving jagged trails to be filled with the trickle of echoing vocals. Kao's cluttered pairings of woolen textures produce a surprisingly wide array of sounds, from the traditionally surfy "Home" and "Coming Clean" to the more hypnagogic thrusts of "Rusted" and "Patience". The tunes that fall under the latter category are Home's strongest offerings. "2102" shot-puts its hefty shoegaze chords with an intentional limp, stumbling over its own snares while "Rusted" turns dissonant corkscrews around kick drums with the same sinister energy that powered My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything.

Though, at times, Home is rough around the edges - sprinkled with odd mixes and claustrophobic guitar arrangements - Valerie Kao's new offering hurdles its obstacles with sheer ambition. Always striving to outdo itself, the record is not just a testament to learning a new skill. It is a push to challenge one's self creatively: to always move forward while looking to tried-and-true aesthetics for inspiration.

4/09/2017

Movie Review: "Your Name"

Your Name
(2016 Toho, Funimation)

(Written simultaneously in a Google Doc file with Mackenzie Manley

JN: Reveling in rustic charm, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name is an earnest work of magical realism that’s tempting to compare to Studio Ghibli’s subtler works like Whisper of the Heart. On the surface, such a comparison seems inevitable. From its marriage of bygone myth and modern development to the twee roundness of each character’s facial features, the 2016 anime film is dripping in Miyazaki-isms.


Perhaps, though, it’s the aesthetic similarities to past Ghibli works that conversely set Your Name furthest apart from the studio that produced Spirited Away, which last year dropped to second place behind Shinkai’s new film in the list of all-time highest grossing anime features. While Ghibli controversially made the leap to cel-shaded 3D animation on their first foray into television, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, in 2014, Your Name feels like a re-affirmation of 2D tradition despite the fact that it was animated by the younger Comix Wave Films.


At its thematic heart, Your Name’s beats snugly between youthful ambition and tradition. Spanning adolescence and adulthood; countryside and city; mysticism and secularism; it’s a coming-of-age film for the post-industrial world as much as it is for the teenage duo it stars.




MM: The appeal of movies that encapsulate the world of teenagers exists in their ability to mold wonderment to cynicism and swirling hormones to existential drama. Your Name perfectly captures adolescence blended to art that is both magical and, at times, hyper-realistic.  


It’s a film of loss and gain--an exploration of a feeling that’s arguably a cornerstone of the human experience: the nagging feeling that something is missing from oneself, just out of reach of discovery.


Taki is a teen boy who attends high school in Tokyo. Mitsuha is a teen girl who lives and attends school in a quaint town in the mountains, layered in tradition and mysticism. Arguably the center focus of the film, she becomes a representation of the intersection between traditionalism and modernism.


They switch bodies two or three times a week at random, without any real explanation as to why it’s happening. It just is. To keep track of one another they keep notes in their counterpart’s phone, their lives bleeding together into one.


“Who are you?” The duo asks over and over. Despite the premise of body-switching not being anything new, the film doesn’t lack ingenuity. Shinkai uses this worn concept and wields it to expose juxtapositioning parts.


JN: As Your Name’s narrative progresses, it becomes evident that a sense of where one belongs is integral to finding out who they are.


Though the schools that Taki and Mitsuha attend serve as the central hub of their respective stories, the two develop their collective sense of self as they venture outside the classroom.
Many high-school anime use secondary education as a microcosm for the world from which their characters rarely escape. The “do-nothing” after-school club has become a trope, solidified by popular series like K-On, Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai, and Inou Battle - though these shows may lead their casts on brief excursions to fast-food chains, amusement parks, etc., there is always a persistent gravitational pull back to lockers and wooden desks. Much of the anime churned out today stems from a Stockholm syndrome-like relationship with education: it is perpetually trapped in 9th grade and marked by cozy slackerism.


Though to a certain degree, these elements are present in Your Name, (particularly the coziness), the film is marked by its sense of scope. Taki and Mitsuha experience much of their personal growth while out exploring the world. As the pair navigate their symbiosis, the former works as a waiter, building the confidence he needs to speak to the co-worker he has a crush on. The latter gains a newfound respect for the archaic traditions and rituals of her hometown.


It isn’t long before each character’s journey leads them to remote, beautifully animated locations, and ultimately to a spiritual understanding of their counterpart.


MM: I feel like I’m always searching for something, someone.” They say, faces upturned.


The duo’s thought is one that reverberates throughout civilization, no matter where or when or who you are. It’s this search, stroked in hazy idealism and melancholy, that is exemplified with poignancy. It’s honest and self-aware without feeling cliched or trying too hard. We wake and go to sleep with the characters; we watch as they scramble within themselves and each other.


Despite never meeting one another, they become centers of support for each other. As the film goes on, the characters don’t seem so desperate. They pick up parts of one another and in this action, develop as a unit


Perhaps the greatest strength in this film, and the reason it has gained acclaim, is not only its undeniable beauty, but its ability to mold something outlandish and apply it to reality.


The scenes are splayed out with precise details--and just like the subjects of the film--the art is a crossroad between two realms. Each scene is built upon the other, characters walking down busy city streets or pedaling up steep hillsides. It is intricately wound, small details woven into the fabric.


In their searching, we begin to believe in them--two jostled and confused teenagers exploring what it means to be a person, and what it means to love and live.

4/04/2017

Review: Foxtails - III

Foxtails - III
(2017 Emocat)

A warm downpour slicks the interstate. Beads of condensation trickle down the windshield as bus tires slice through reflective pools, making each attempt at braking a little too slippery for comfort. Stray precipitation wriggles through the always-cracked window across the aisle, buffeting your forearm as your grip the seat in front of you more tightly. Confined to this vessel, you ride at the mercy of the driver and the rainfall. Something about the rumble of the floor underfoot, radiant with the bus' warmth, lets you relax and steep in the helplessness.

Foxtails' untitled third LP is entrenched in this feeling of counterfeit safety. Stitching their verses together with Slint-esque riffs, the Connecticut skramz trio thread a patchwork of wiry math-rock melodies and sludge-laden crescendoes. Each optimistic twinkle is contrasted by an ominous growl - each sung dream-pop lyric tows a screeched chorus to match. 

Dealing a confused shuffle of woozy introspection and unfiltered catharsis, Foxtails struggle to choose between their inner inclinations toward The Innocence Mission and Flowers Taped To Pens. "The Chicken From Outer Space" marries the two sounds seamlessly: its opening salvo of tangly jazz phrasings stumble over drum fills, falling headfirst into a placid shoegaze stew. A minute-and-a-half into the tune, though, the band lets of go of their safety restraints. Michael Larocca's percussion crumbles to a faint shuffle as Jon Benham's guitar coats itself in the remaining crumbs. Megan Cadena-Fernandez intensifies her vocal delivery, morphing her slight intonation into a piercing scream. III is packed with these biting hooks: brief emotional outbursts meant to expunge self-doubt.

Closing cut "Every Window in Alcatraz Has a View of San Francisco" closes the record with its most polished composition. Building up speed as it progresses, the track gathers in its orbit strands of clouded guitaristry that twist and bend like stretched gum. Cadena-Fernandez and Benham trade screams over antsy bleats of distortion that slowly pressurize until the album's finale, a vomited explosion of abstract emotion - pure, vitriolic ambience. 

III is a fast-track to emotional release: a boom-and-bust cycle of energy that's as potentially nauseating as it is thrilling. Make sure you're primed for mountainous drops, sharp turns, and stomach-churning loops before boarding. 

3/30/2017

Review: sailsonicli - "surprise canard"

sailsonicli - surprise canard
(2017 Self-Released)

Tape loops and sampled strings trickle like a woodland stream; like blood through veins. Their whispered interplay is more felt than heard. The intro to surprise canard is carved in loosened sediment, spongy to the touch. As degraded as a VHS tape's decaying soundtrack, sailsonicli's plunderphonic arrangement is a distant glimmer of tranquility in need of a documentarian's voice-over: Oneohtrix meets Reedbeds meets Ken Burns. 

 Following the Danish solo act's intro are a pair of instrumental jams that layer analogous coats of Duster-esque guitar atop rickety rhythms. The former, "postjudice box-ed", knots its taut threads of riffage into a cradle for its liturgical chants, reverberated into the dream-pop void. It's here that sailsonicli most effectively demonstrate their attention to detail. Sudden swells of bass act as trampoline springs that catch falling melodies. Rich weaves of vocal harmony ensure a soft landing. Tinny pluckings ooze just enough residual echo to form their impression on the wall, like a passing car's nighttime silhouette that sneaks through your bedroom window.

Though equally as ambient, closing cut "Establishment" is the antithesis to surprise canard's intro: dense, silver-screen cinematic, and forcefully pretty. Walls of crumbling synth muffle the outside creep of buttery dawn like a tightly-packed igloo. sailsonicli's music spans the freeze and thaw of February-to-March. Grab a pair of earbuds and enjoy the seasonal shift.

3/25/2017

Review: Stampeter - "Too Many Boys"

Stampeter - Too Many Boys
(2017 Self-Released)

"Hell is other people" - Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

"Hell is a room full of nerds falling in love" - Stampeter, Too Many Boys

Translating Luca Marie's muffled bedroom pop murmur into the voice of a proper trio is an effort that requires more attention to the kerning of its font than the content of the letters on the page. Too Many Boys, the Connecticut emo outfit's first release as a full band, is the fruit of this sonic spring cleaning, sacrificing some of the quaint twang of earlier efforts for confident, roomy projection. It's the three-way intersection that joins Blake Babies, Dinosaur Jr., and Flatsound, their collective exhaust fumes forming a fuzzy conviction that can't accurately be labeled as either emo or grunge, but falls somewhere between the two.

"Pullout Couch" immediately establishes Stampeter's newfound amplitude. Opening with a sneakily soft pairing of rhythm guitar and tom-tom, the band contrasts their intro with an eruption of magmatic distortion and cymbal crashes. A faint Casio riff tops the composition like melodic sprinkles before the band launches into double time for a brief foray into pop-punk territory, then returns to the minimal creep that they started with. Stampeter isn't satisfied with repetition: in just three-and-a-half minutes, multiple genres and tempos are adopted and discarded before settling on a single sound, much to the advantage of the listener.

Too Many Boys is at its best at its most nineties. On "Waters",  Stampeter channels Weezer, lacing their crescendos with an abundance of oooohs, while "Horribly Comfy" hearkens back to The Sundays' signature guitar tone, as distant and prickly as an arm that has fallen asleep.

As far as Bandcamp culture goes, there aren't many bands that balance the rawness of a basement show with studio polish as well as Stampeter. Too Many Boys is a smartly-curated compilation of new material and revisited classics that sustains its energy for its full runtime. It's a portable DIY show: all the vivacity of live music minus the gas it'd take to see it.

3/21/2017

Portland Recap, Pt. 2 // John Porcellino's "Map of My Heart"

'

On Friday, I posted an overview of my trip to the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Portland, Oregon, and then offered up a few reviews of the music I brought home. Before I return to my usual flow of Half-Gifts output, here's one last look at my souvenir haul and my first attempt at a proper book review:

FLOATING WORLD COMICS

John Porcellino - Map Of My Heart
(2009, Drawn and Quarterly)

Though best consumed issue by issue in their Xerox-copied form, John Porcellino's King Cat Comics translate as naturally to the form of a print anthology as the oversized collections of Doonesbury and For Better or for Worse that - as a child - I'd scan in my lap while waiting for a LaRosa's family-sized pizza to arrive at the table, or on short minivan rides to church. A single 32-page volume of King Cat snatched from a record store 'zine rack is a voyeuristic peek into the life of the hermetical romantic who inked it: a fragmented series of pen-doodled vignettes fished from scattered periods in his life. Like an existentialist's take on Archie's Double Digest, Porcellino's pages catalog neighborhood walks, Halloweens, and backyard wildlife with the defiant sentimentality of a desktop Ziggy calendar. In the context of a hefty "best-of" collection, they more resemble portions of a memoir, each mundane discovery or transient memory woven into King Cat's overarching profession of faith in silence and sincerity,

Compiling classic King Cat stories released from 1996 to 2009, Map of My Heart is a meditative read. Crisp narration and a sparse visual shorthand recount brushes with nature from a perspective decidedly less scenic than that of their biggest influencers: Thoreau and Hsueh-feng. Porcellino's Walden is the woodchuck in the tall grass behind the strip-mall parking lot; a stray cat cutting through the suburban landscape. He treads the strange overlaps between the natural and man-made worlds, finding beauty in their mismatching. 

"Camping in the [Catalina] state park," Porcellino recalls in an all-text interlude. "Winnebagos parked in makeshift cul-de-sacs, complete with Astroturf lawns, striped canopies and satellite TV".

"We tear down the places where birds live, and put up places where people live," he sighs in another. "To a bird there is no tearing down."

As effortlessly profound as Map of My Heart's prose can be, its primitive twee drawings are what prompt constant re-reading throughout the day. The figures that make up each panel are unabashedly amateur, their clean outlines forming expressions true-to-life in their extemporaneity. Charles Schulz-esque squiggles form hairlines. Flimsy bodies twist like Matisse prints. Geometric faces mold to the expressionist shape of their surroundings, a la Mob Psycho 100. Shakily scribbled shapes form desktops and Golden Arches - earthworms and desklamps.

These Rorschach lines are catalysts for imagination. Porcellino provides the context and sentiment: the reader colors them with their own textures and emotion. Though I don't plan on taking a crayon to its black-and-white pages, Map of My Heart is a capitalized Coloring Book in the Chance the Rapper sense. Keep your mental pallette of RoseArt watercolors at the ready.

3/17/2017

Portland Recap, Pt. 1


If any of my recent tweets have traversed your phone's screen over the course of this week, you'll know that I've spent the past few days steeped in the damp fog of the Pacific Northwest, attending the Conference on College Composition and Communication as an undergraduate representative of Northern Kentucky University. Held in Portland this year, the CCCC is an annual gathering of writing instructors from across the country: a forum to talk shop and present fresh ideas. Alongside a panel of faculty members and a high school teacher in NKU's Master's degree program, I participated in a discussion of digital writing's impact on the English classroom, suggesting that an extracurricular outlet for creativity (like this blog) can be as integral to building writing skills as sitting in on a lecture. There's a symbiotic relationship between writing on and off campus.

Between sessions at the Convention Center, I hopped on Portland's light rail system, threading lanes of traffic as the trolley cut through a soggy cityscape - navy blues and forest greens splattered ubiquitously across the urban canvas. This earthy aura seemed to bleed into the muted windbreakers and flannels of my fellow passengers. Bathing in the comfy gloom, I felt as if I were inhabiting an Alex G record as I paid quick visits to bookstores and record shops around the city. I knew I couldn't return home without unearthing a few subcultural gems to post about later, and so to better include you in my experience, I've brought back a few finds from each store I've visited. Here's a sampler of my most clutch purchases:

EVERYDAY MUSIC (BURNSIDE)


The Mountain Goats - Ghana
(1999 Three Beads of Sweat)

I spent the better part of my flight from LAX to PDX flipping my way through John Darnielle's sophomore novel, Universal Harvester. On the trip back home, I scanned the liner notes of his 1999 compilation of rarities, Ghana.

Bringing this disc to the register at Everyday's prompted a brief exchange of identical opinions on Darnielle's bibliography. The cashier - who wore a Bloom County t-shirt - and I had each completed Wolf in White Van, but had yet to make it far enough into his latest release to make a concrete judgement.

Squeezing 31 tracks into just over an hour, Ghana's cluttered tracklist and varying degrees of tape-degradation make each listen feel like stumbling into the sort of used bookstore that haphazardly jams its collection of yellowed paperbacks onto homemade shelves, forcing the customer to browse without a specific goal in mind.

Even on its own, opening cut "Golden Boy" is worth the price of admission. Written for a sampler EP curated by Paul Lukas, (former editor of food-packaging design zine Beer Frame and current editor of sports uniform blog Uni Watch), the tune strings a clumsy chord progression through a boombox-recorded call to follow in Christ's footsteps while buying tins of boiled peanuts along the way.

"If thine enemy oppresseth you
You must let him oppress you some more
So that when you go shopping in paradise
You'll find those magnificent peanuts from Singapore"


Ducktails - Ducktails
(2009 Not Not Fun)

As suited for the planetarium as it is the overcast shores of the Northeastern United States, Matt Mondanile's self-titled debut album as Ducktails bottles the sea-salted air of his native New Jersey and launches this atmospheric canister into the cosmos via space-rock riffage. Phase-shifted guitars lap at drum machine loops, leaving the impression of their ebb in the sand. It trickles through the gaps between your fingers: Ducktails pushes the meditative capacity of the early Chillwave scene to Zen-like levels. Ripples of washed-out synthesizer bob on a crest of reverb at mantric intervals as suited to their surroundings as the occasional rumble of a freezer's ice machine in the kitchen or a washer/dryer's distant tremor. When a CD's artwork boasts the allure of Jan Anderzen's post-NAFTA tapestry, it's hard to leave it on the display rack.

2nd Avenue Records

Hugh - Crush
(1994 Mafia Money)

Dollar bins have yet to steer me wrong.

Having a limited time to browse their selection of vinyl, I focused solely on 2nd Street Records' crates of long-forgotten singles, shuffling through columns of square artwork until a certain image would pique my curiosity. I'm not ashamed to say that I do judge albums by their cover art.

Few records have looked as promising at first glance as Hugh's Crush. It's so non-descript that it, oddly enough, begs to be noticed. Something about the way its royal blue title, (printed in the same font I use on the front page of my zines), sits uncomfortably atop its murky backdrop is intensified by the vague creepiness of a Felix the Cat doll. The graphic feels like a spiritual successor to @cursedimages on Twitter: it is unnerving in its lack of clarity and context.

Crush is one of the most immediately gripping noise-pop releases I've listened to in quite a while, imbuing Neil Young's penchant for blown-out Maj7 chords with the endearing whine of Sunny Day Real Estate. Dropped squarely in the heat of emo's heyday, Hugh's first 7" release is my closest link to the genre's source.

Gerty Farish - Deadly Attackers
(1999 Menlo Park)

A cute record with even cuter album artwork, Deadly Attackers is an exercise in twee-simplicity. Playskool keyboard blips, squawks of rhythm guitar, and drum machine blast beats race at sprinters' paces towards an imagined finish line that promises apple pies and ice-cream sundaes served in plastic baseball helmets at the other end of the triathlon tape. According to the single's back cover, Gerty Farish are a duo that hailed from Brooklyn in the late-90s, but a quick Google search turns up next to nothing related to this particular 7". Despite the lack of info I've found concerning Deadly Attackers, I've uncovered some Youtube footage of the band playing a DIY show in Massachussets a couple of years before this record dropped. As rad as the music pressed onto this release is, I'm even more excited by the peek into the DIY culture of 1997 that it has led me to.

3/11/2017

Review: This Is Lorelei - "Better To Be"

This Is Lorelei - Better To Be
(2017 Self-Released)

Its swells of autotune rippling in a tropical post-chillwave breeze, "You I Fall Into" billows above sonic territory bordering Autre Ne Veut's early discography and Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreaks. Leading off This Is Lorelei's third EP released in as many months, it foregoes the Chicago-based solo act's preferred pallette of jittery math-rock riffage for a foamy head of bossa-nova vapor that rests on a gentle groove. At scattered intervals, Lorelei hacks up throat-clearing synth distortion that makes room for more complex arrangements: the rhythm guitar's minimal, Dirty Beaches flow tightens into a crunchier twang as the song worms its way into a meditative furrow. 

Oddly enough, Better To Be relegates its title cut to its virtual B-Side - a smart move, considering its sparse arrangements and sweeping sentimentality, which lend themselves more to conclusion than their predecessor, bursting with jazzy kinetic energy. Bouncing atop a four-on-the-floor kick drum, a single keyboard phrase kneads the tune into the repetition it references. I can't help but be reminded of the futurist-folk ethose employed by author Nicholson Baker on the musical accompaniment to his novel, The Traveling Sprinkler.

"Are you ready to repeat?"

TIL's vocoder carries most of the emotional burden here, seasoning each loop with a new sense of automaton moodiness - sometimes quaint and hopeful, while at other times huskily content.

Somewhat of an outlier in This Is Lorelei's prolific discography, Better To Be is an ode to the daily grind: a call to appreciate the flares of variation that guide us from week to week. 

3/07/2017

Review: Gum Country - "Gum Country"

Gum Country - Gum Country
(2017 Lollipop Records)

Ever wonder why each stick of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum is imprinted with its signature tread? I'll let you in on a secret. Each morning, when the pavement swells with yesterday's rainfall, Courtney Garvin's guitar feedback flattens the sucralose highways of Gum Country, prepping product for harvest. Tire tracks dig crisscrossing patterns into the steamrolled road - Connor Mayer rides in tow, reaching out of his trailer to reap chewy rectangles and wrap them in bitcrushed drum loops.

Gum Country's self-titled LP is as pliant as you'd expect. Opener "Brain Song" stretches its lead keyboard melody about a rattling rhythm section like a maypole's ribbon - despite its trudging Sonic Youth dissonance, the track tinged with Y2K pop sensibility. It conjures visions of pale yellows and crayola purples forming abstract blobs in space as cartoon robots turn midair somersaults. Grinding like pebbles beneath a shoe, power chords form a progression as conversely iconic/formless as a Gamecube's controller: molding to the shape of your hands, or in this case, your ears. Fold it between your molars: "Brain Song" is meant to munch on aimlessly as its flavor coats your palate. 

At the heart of the record is Gum Country's most solid offering, "Pills". a twee deconstruction of Swervedriver's shoegazey psychedelia. Garvin's vocals are much more whispery and buried than those she contributes to her more well-known project, The Courtneys. The refracted outline of a coin at the bottom of a swimming pool, they are barely perceptible - a beautiful object just out of reach. Accumulated reverb ripples as distortion and snares land cannonball dives on the surface.

It's tough to tell whether Gum Country's instrumentation is coffee or chamomile. Are its bursts of distortion units of punk vigor or sluggish drones? Depending on the occasion, the brain may perceive them as either. "Woah Oh" can be a mosh-inducing anthem. "I Don't Stay Up" can encourage you to agree with its title. No matter which beverage you'd rather compare the duo to, though, you can be certain that their output is as trusty and warm as anything served in a mug.

3/02/2017

Single Reviews: Alex G - "Bobby" / The Drums - "Blood Under My Belt"

Alex G - "Bobby // The Drums - "Blood Under My Belt"
(2017 Domino / ANTI)

As the Midwestern climate re-arranges my layers of jackets and sweaters, so too do its fluctuations scramble my listening habits as I walk from the Student Union to the concrete campus' English Studies hall. Freezing winds, channeled through a tunnel of brutalist architecture, call for a futurist rotation of Soundcloud maufacture - steely slabs of grimy techno shuffled into a deck of dark trap-rap singles. The more assertive and new the input is, the more resistant to the cold I feel.

In this exchange of data, I am the singularity - the self-driven vehicle that senses the movements its fellow commuters make but ultimately fixes its gaze on the destination: in this case the warmth of Room 316 and its adjacent vending machine, which peddles my favorite flavor of Clif Bar. I let the Yeongrak playlist sizzle to a bitcrushed silence as I slide into my seat and unwrap my purchase.

 

Each brief hint at spring, though, is a chance for me to tuck myself back into a sense of familiarity, which makes now the perfect time for my high-school mainstays to return to top form. I was shocked last night to find - (amidst recent releases by Los Campesinos and Beach Fossils) - that new-wave revivalists The Drums had emerged from a three-year hibernation, following up an admittedly bland third LP with the band's most solid track since "Me and the Moon", which dropped in 2010.

"Blood Under My Belt", our first peek at The Drums' upcoming record titled Abysmal Thoughts, is as primal as their early demo material, holding firmly to spartan beach-pop arrangements. The track's bleating lead guitar and steady bassline prop up a skeletal drum loop - recurring swells of violin wink at offscreen opulence. In comparison to the messy, somewhat abstract synthscapes of 2014's Encyclopedia, frontman Jonny Pierce shears his composition down to the sort of wiry simplicity that was in vogue during the early 2010s. Veiled by the sweetness of his bubblegum-pop delivery is a profound sadness - a yearning for the relative innocence of life midway through the Obama administration filtered through an 80s post-punk lens. Is this meta-nostalgia?

"i see death coming too quickly / i don't want this to end"



Alex Giannascoli also chooses to approach our shifting cultural paradigm with wistful puerility. "Bobby", released this morning in anticipation of the Pennsylvanian singer-songwriter's eighth album, Rocket, recalls the pastoral twang of Uncle Tupelo. Fiddle riffs are scraped from a dreamy acoustic progression like dirt from untrimmed fingernails: bitterly earthen. Giannascoli and a yet-to-be-credited guest vocalist contribute surreal verses to their pastoral alt-country panorama, their wavering harmonies looming like overcast clouds.

While The Drums take a peek at the rearview glass, Alex G parks the car in a roadside field for a picnic.

"the colors blue and purple start / to bleed into the endless dark"

2/26/2017

Review: The Glass Eyes - "The Ocean's Over There"

The Glass Eyes - The Ocean's Over There
(2017 Self-Released)

The Ocean's Over There is an index of outros. Though most of the LP's nine tracks span two or more minutes, The Glass Eyes' recent crop of folk-rock output is marked with a sense of conclusion. Fragmented phrases that feel as if they've been harvested from a larger yield of lyrics are stretched like chewed gum across climactic soundscapes. It's this constant, sustained catharsis that makes the Chicago trio's new record so replayable. Each song begins in medias res or later, sparing introductory filler while doubling down the sort of emotionally-charged chorus-craft and experimentation usually reserved for crescendos. There’s a constant hint that what you’re hearing is a small fragment of an unheard whole. So many indie rock acts are compared to Neil Young that I've gone to great lengths to avoid bringing up the Canadian singer-songwriter's name whenever I can. It'd be impossible to review The Ocean's Over There, however, without doing so. "This music's really good! / Those dudes can play! / That song sounded like Neil Young," reads The Glass Eyes' Bandcamp bio. All three quoted statements are true, especially the last. Inaugural tune "Hey" fuses Young's penchant for sitar-like tapestries with the atmospheric crunch of mid-90s acts he inspired: the song's title is chanted over a cloud of psychedelic warble, which subsequently bursts into a flurry of overdriven feedback that drifts from Built to Spill to Dinosaur Jr. on the fuzz spectrum. Frontman Chris Jones' vocals - twangy, in the way that Mark Mulcahy's anti-southern drawl resounds - are absorbed into the sponge of guitars. As the instrumental feeds on its nutrients, it continues to grow in intensity. The same "Hey" and the same riff are repeatedly hammered into tape, each iteration slightly more more sincere than the last. "Hey" is a greeting, then a cry for attention, then a plea to stop. "Hey / I'm only trying to be." "Spend It Alone" is even more frugal with its syllables, draping its four-minute arrangement in seven unique words. Hollow synths that screech like rusted machinery do much of the track's talking, scuffing the surface of each layered harmony. Jones resembles Amen Dunes here, his chants spookily dissonant as they contort and fade into the nocturnal air. The Ocean's Over There hits peak folksiness on "Boxing", imbuing Fleet Foxes' sacred woodland atmosphere with a groovy optimism. It gives the impression of mystic grandiosity while staying grounded in garage rock grime. Like much of The Glass Eyes' music, it's suggestive of something greater, just enough to seize your curiosity.

2/21/2017

Review: Kieran Daly + Robbie S. Taylor - "OST"

Kieran Daly + Robbie S. Taylor - OST
(2016 Psalmus Diuersae)

Cinema magic. The straight-to-VHS kind. 

Cybertwee composers Kieran Daly and Robbie S. Taylor chef up revelatory ambience for Reagan-era adventure on their debut collaborative effort, OST, aiming their aural flashlight at the 10-speed mountain bike that weaves through neighborhood lawns, synchronized swatch watches, and the occasional extraterrestrial encounter. Hollow bleats of synth brass and a pliant bassline's bounce urge the cast into action, deconstructing The Yellowjackets' RnB-tinged jazz fusion into a spillage of retro-chic playthings scattered on James Ferraro's studio floor. 

On OST's A-side, Daly stacks stabs of MIDI programming like blocks in a wriggling Jenga tower. Curdled keyboard drones flirt at rhythm, stepping on the toes of slap bass licks in their stream-of-conscious dance. "Boss' Brake Solo" and "Extra Movable Fuj World" are feeble scaffolds, their recurring gusts of clammy dissonance filling wide-open vacancies: each structure's decrepit construction is made apparent as they buckle in the breeze. Hold on for dear life - don't let the minimalist motifs lull you into comfort.

Taking his turn on the B-Side, Taylor pumps OST's gas pedal, corralling his bite-sized ideas into nuggets of expressionism. Each composition on the latter half of the record is marked by its sense of urgency: alternating keyboard notes speedwalk across the shopping mall floor in their ergonomic trainers on "Sheets of Sand", avian flute-trills goading the listener into the dissonant hustle of "Cutscene: Boonies", a climactic chase scene illustrated by frenetically-mashed harpsichord and melodramatic swells of Earthbound-esque chiptune. 

Released exclusively through Psalmus Diuersae's bare-bones website, Daly and Taylor's improvised horseplay is perfectly tailored to its medium of distribution. It is content to be a curious ripple in a massive body of data; a cryptic .rar file to be unzipped, consumed, shelved in your iTunes library, and re-discovered months later only to re-affirm its strangeness. While I still greatly enjoy collecting odd 7" records salvaged from bargain bins, there's an equally alluring sense of wonder that lies dormant in the stray .mp3 file. Maybe sometime in the near future, in reaction to the ubiquity of streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, the forsaken Blogspot pages of the late 00's peddling their rips of screamo demo tapes and forum threads devoted to trading Animal Collective bootlegs will prove just as hip as making the drive to your local record store. Perhaps you've stumbled upon this review years from its publication date only to browse Psalmus' virtual vinyl crate, admiring its dreamy eggshell backdrop as you grab a .pdf, an .mp4, and few .zip files for your future perusal.

Long live the download.

Snag OST here: http://psalm.us/ost.html

2/16/2017

Review: Communions - "Blue"

Communions - Blue
(2017 Fat Possum)

When are we not in communion? In spite of the Internet's omnipresence/omnipotence, much of my web-surfing takes place under the cover of digital tabernacles: niche structures waterproof enough to thwart the shower of data trickling down my phone's screen. Buckets of rainwater collect what is useful to me and filter out the pollution.

The subculture; the group chat; the social media echo chamber - these are the places we gather to assume identity in the digital sphere. We are huddled tribes toasting s'mores on the campfires of our user-generated content. If anyone is familiar with the sectarian nature of the netscape, it should be Danish quartet Communions. Emerging from the then-trendy Scandinavian collective Posh Isolation in 2014, the post-punk outfit benefited from a sizeable buzz generated by the backing of label founder/Iceage frontman Elias Ronnenfelt and their blog-ready brand of lo-fi grit, squeezing icy squalls of garage rock into tight sonic containers. From the blurred resolution of their Cobblestones EP to the faceless figures that graced the covers of their discography, Communions' output seemed to come from a place of remoteness: the stylish impersonality of online demi-stardom.

That's what makes their first full-length LP, Blue, such a refreshing effort: raising previously-closed venetian blinds of fuzz, Communions make the dramatic nosedive into clarity suggested by aquatic album artwork that bears a heavy resemblance to Siouxsie and the Banshees' The Scream.

While Blue may visually suggest the sound of Goth's industrial conception in the late-70s to early-80s, its 11 tracks are more spiritually in tune with The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" than "A Forest" - it's an idealistic, bright-eyed explosion of power pop that revels in lyrical ambiguity. Martin Rehof's ductile vocals rocket from the springy surface of opener "Come On, I'm Waiting", slicing through constellatory new-wave riffage:

"I've been up and I've been down / I've been lost and I've been found.../Turn me into Blue"

Communions flaunt their newfound accessibility on the following cut, "Today", recalling the wiry indie-pop of Phoenix and The Strokes. Ambitious lead melodies are gravitationally pulled back to manageable heights by gloomy acoustic chords, forming a ripple of optimism that bubbles at the tune's surface. 

Blue is best at its most unabashedly cheesy. Cases in point: the lovely little flute-like synth that strings the bridge of "Eternity" to its chorus, the blues-rock twang that peppers "Midnight Child", and especially the churchbell trills of guitar that open "She's a Myth". Though not a groundbreaking project, the record is teeming with enough anthemic energy to stay in rotation for months to come. It's a giant leap from fragmentation to singularity - from communion to ite, missa est!