Review: Alex Bleeker and the Freaks - Country Agenda

Alex Bleeker and the Freaks - Country Agenda
(2015 Sinderlyn)

I have plenty of love for the dreamy, folk-tinged "bourgeois-pop" that Martin Courtney and Matt Mondanile crank out at a robotically consistent rate when they're not working on new Real Estate material, but I do find it a shame that the sideline venture of the band's bassist, Alex Bleeker, is often overlooked by fans. Rather than searching for influence in the twinkling lead-guitar constellations of Pavement's Terror Twilight or the cigarette-stained mustiness of 70's soft rock records, Bleeker's quintet of Freaks seek to reclaim the sound of The Grateful Dead's American Beauty, seasoning the mix with just enough airy shimmer to satiate jangle pop die-hards. Their latest output, Country Agenda, is an act of careful sonic surgery that extracts the "jam band-iness" from the jam bands of yore, transplanting them into the instantly-recognizable, reverby songcraft of Captured Tracks affiliates like Mac Demarco and Wild Nothing. 

The Freaks are at the top of their game on "Portrait", a cavernous cut that seems to effortlessly form an all-consuming atmosphere of post-rainstorm summer mugginess - peals of slide guitar and splashes of jazzy keyboard drip like condensation down the edge of an unobtrusive rhythm section that provides just enough space for the sneakily pretty vocal harmonies that surface in the tune's infectious chorus, but it's outliers like the bluesy "Honey I Don't Know" and "Turtle Dove", a gospel groove that provides the record some goofy anti-gravitas, that make this record such a joy to re-visit again and again. I wouldn't consider myself a Dead Head by any stretch of the imagination, but to detect their influence incorporated into an indie rock record without a speck of irony is quite refreshing, especially at the tail end of a year teeming with post-modern pop pastiches. Country Agenda is the late evening cooldown after months of gorging myself on the futurist pop of A.G. Cook and Le1f - it's beautifully sincere.


Single Review: Wild Nothing - "TV Queen"

Wild Nothing - "TV Queen"
(Captured Tracks 2015)

Jack Tatum's 6-year career as the frontman of Wild Nothing serves as a model of artistic progression done the right way in indie rock. He seldom strays from the core influences and timbres employed in past ventures - the amorphous goth-pop gloom of GeminiNocturne's shimmering devotion to Rumors-era Fleetwood Mac; the forceful new-wave elegance found throughout much of Empty Estate - and continues to shuffle them back into his deck of ideas, adding new cards along the way. "TV Queen" deals listeners the better hand of the two tracks Tatum recently released in anticipation of his forthcoming LP, Life of Pause, and seems to borrow some inspiration from the mixtape of smoky Italian lounge music he posted on his soundcloud page last year. The tune is somewhat sour, coating cyclical string melodies and splashes of guitar in an acidic chorus effect. This tartness is offset, however, by mellow-yet-solid bass and lazily played saxophone that floats in the backdrop. "TV Queen" offers the satisfaction of an after-dinner dessert - patient with the build-ups to the emotional high of its chorus. The song is filled with flavor but not over-stuffed with clutter. 


Review: Beauty Camp - La chaleur de l'amour

Beauty Camp - La chaleur de l'amour
(2015 Self-Released)

Talk about your descriptive album titles: few phrases could sum up the most recent effort of French psychedelia triumvirate Beauty Camp as succinctly and accurately as La chaleur de l'amour - "the warmth of love". Though its sound centers heavily around the traditional recipe for krautrock (lumbering basslines, tight rhythms and gobs of reverb), Beauty Camp takes care to define its own trademark take on the subgenre that culls textural influence from the guitar tone of early 90's noise rock icons like Sebadoh and Sonic Youth, makes great use of sudden starts and stops to make for fractured, unpredictable songcraft, and employs keyboard in place of bass guitar to craft brooding, Doors-ian atmospheres that slowly pull listeners into the void - a surprisingly cozy and inviting void, that is. The record's fifth and self-titled cut is its most satisfying, evolving from a funky surf-pop ditty into a a towering wall of post-rock shoegazery. Its successor, "Bonne Pioche" also scores points for originality, pairing infectious guitar/steel-drum harmonies with a shuffling beat. It's a fun closing tune that reminds me of the theme song from Nickelodeon's Doug. Overall, this is a fascinating EP that re-creates the sound and atmosphere of a good house show.


Review: Blossoming Mums - "Dithering Mornings"

Blossoming Mums - Dithering Mornings
(2015 Night People)

There is a beautifully organic quality to Blossoming Mums' debut tape on Night People Records - it's as if the nebulous tufts of shoegazey ambience weren't generated by heavily reverberated guitar and warm keyboard pads, but were instead exhaled photo-synthetically by some alien breed of plant. Airy chords dissipate into the aether, warmed by trellises of noodly lead guitar and wordless mantras whispered by Massachusetts residents Robert Robinson and Amanda Freeman. Though Dithering Mornings is best consumed whole - amorphous and narcotic - it reaches its aesthetic peaks when it delves into Lynch-ian territories: "Words of Birds" sounds like your neighbor's hushed karaoke version of the Twin Peaks theme (the Julee Cruise version!) seeping through the paper-thin walls of your apartment. The dissonant intro to "Window Watching" even recalls "Laurie's Theme" from John Carpenter's Halloween score. "No Hands" is also worth multiple replays, a droney take on Real Estate's signature surf-folk approach to indie pop.


Review: Tokyo Karan Koron - "Go Nin No Entertainers"

Tokyo Karan Koron - Gin Nin No Entertainers
(Specific 2015)

Settling in the same remote sonic territory as high-energy outliers like Fang Island and Of Montreal, Japanese quintet Tokyo Karan Koron cleverly weave elements of prog, new wave and math rock into their sensory assault of maximalist pop. On the surface, Gin Nin No Entertainers, the band's sophomore LP re-issued earlier this year by French imprint Specific, is a colorful and aggressively catchy assortment of quirky indie-rock; a closer listen reveals layers of complexity and avant-garde experimentation so deftly woven together that it's tricky to recognize their presence. Itinerant melodies leave dissonant comet tails beyond the horizon line of "16 no Beat"'s bouncy, vaguely punk rhythm section while splashes of calliope-like keyboard tint the landscape with a pastel filter; this depth of sound wielded by the band provides plenty of room for smooth - yet drastic - shifts in tone and texure. As tension builds, the tune assumes a hedonistic, carnival-like atmosphere which explodes into a blinding kaleidoscope of Paisley positivity.

Each song on the Gin Nin No Entertainers houses its own balance of free-spirited fun and emotional catharsis - the brief moments that offer rest between the fragmented ideas and strange melodic tangents become the album's most memorable. The flimsy strand of twangy notes - played in tandem on keyboard and lead guitar - that bridge the gap between the sections of sludgy abstraction and nebulous pop on "Yubi De Kiss Shiyo" is my personal favorite of these. Like the interludes on Deafheaven's Sunbather, the short segments of minimalist ambience that act as calming pauses between blistering hurricanes of expressionist rock bear as much emotional weight as the songs they bookend. Gin Nin No Entertainers is a verdant garden filled with variety and fresh creativity that practically begs the listener to jump in and explore.


Review: Barlow/Naked Ant - Split

Barlow + Naked Ant
(2015 Self-Released)

As close to a physical manifestation of the DIY Ethos as I've ever come across, this cassette collaboration between two of my favorite garage rock outfits is a match made in post-internet heaven. Back in late 2014, Ethan Oliva - frontman of veteran shoegaze trio Barlow - dropped the titles of a few of his own songs into the Bandcamp search bar to check up on their streaming stats. Among the results lurked an impassioned cover of Barlow's "In The Air" recorded by New Jerseyan high-schooler Ben Spizuco. Though faithful to the tune from which it sprang forth, Spizuco's rendition of "In The Air" retains the signature charm that accents the entirety of his own discography - it's as raw as rock gets, unapologetically leaving splatters of sonorous mic feedback audible among a tight weave of trebly chords and a few (sometimes clumsy) lead guitar riffs. It was a perfectly punk tune made up of imperfect takes, the product of a single musician whose efforts could stand up proudly next to his those of his influencers. Impressed by the cover and flattered to witness the influence of his music firsthand, Oliva gave Spizuco a shout-out on the Barlow Facebook page.

Flash forward to November 2015: Spizuco has formed a fuzz-pop trio of his own, Naked Ant, and has joined forces with his heroes on a self-titled split tape. On the A-side of the magnetic rectangle, Barlow invites listeners to help clear out their attic, dusting off old unfinished demos. Vocals are added to instrumentals like the Hüsker Dü-esque "Ride" and "I'll See You", a brief power-pop ditty carried by hyper-melodic lead guitar that would make J Mascis proud. Alongside a handful of brand new recordings that resemble Isn't Anything-era MBV, there are a smattering of skeletal song-sketches that comprise my favorite section of Barlow's end of the split. "Down There" bobs buoyantly on the crest of a tinny guitar loop while "For All Time" coats arpeggios with warm layers of ambience that resemble the cry of a Kricketune. 

Naked Ant's side of the tape is chock-full of experimentation and infused with the fun of jamming in the garage with one's friends. "School of Thought Graduate" makes use of mistakes in mixing and mastering to maximize shifts in dynamics and texture, making for a tune that ferries listeners down into the murky depths of an ocean of reverb only to send them rocketing toward the surface on the strength of powerful cymbal crashes and muscly chords. The band ventures into a combination of blues and 70s soft rock on "Sailing On The Delaware" and even delves into some slinky free improvisation on closing cut "Lisa". My favorite Naked Ant cut from the tape, though, is perhaps its most unassuming, coyly concealing the alien timbres hidden beneath its surface. "The Wait For September" starts out as a traditional acoustic strummer that hearkens back to the early efforts of Sentridoh, but slowly morphs into a haunting piece of avant-garde wizardry: distant growls of feedback pass through the mix like transient phantoms. Beautifully spooky.

Check out Barlow's side of the tape here and Naked Ant's side here 


Single Review: Blessed Gloom - "Chemistry"

Blessed Gloom - Chemistry
(Self-Released 2015)

Rising from the still-warm ashes of his defunct project 17 Years, Blessed Gloom is the latest creative endeavor of Missouri's resident dream-pop mastermind Tony Freijat. Post-rechristening, Freijat has plucked the choicest elements of sound from his back catalogue (noodly basslines tinged with icy reverb; post-punk rhythms; filtered, distant vocals) and sandwiched them between traces of 90s pop-rock and anthemic guitar riffs that could easily fit into a shonen anime's opening song. Poured into a mold of sleek, vaporous production that's - in a way - cloud rap-esque, this metamorphic layer of atmospheric bliss solidifies, emerging a polished and punchy slab of high-fidelity shoegaze.


Review: Swords/Drahla - "Split"

Swords/Drahla - Split
(2015 Self-Released)

My most memorable Bandcamp finds tend to be those free of the cult of indie-rock personality, quietly lurking in the depths of the "bedroom pop" and "shoegaze" tags. I've always enjoyed that the internet has given artists the ability to don goofy and surreal new identities, and sometimes I feel that the the most powerful persona to project is the complete lack of one. When band photos, interviews and twitter accounts are often a click away, to be faced with nothing stops me in my tracks. Even after piecing together the few scattered scraps of digital documentation I could uncover surrounding this gritty morsel of lo-fi pop, the only sort of background I can give you on this split cassingle is that it was recorded somewhere in the United Kingdom, divided between two mysterious projects that appear to consist of the same members. I don't know their names, and I'm completely OK with that. Their music speaks for itself in strange and beautiful dialects. 

Swords' side of the tape pairs an odd coupling of funky rhythms (tinny drum machine and bouncy bass) with nebulous pulses of brass-like keyboard. In a way, it reminds me of a more eerie version of Wild Nothing's newer material - at times it even gives off some strong Ariel Pink vibes. Billy Corgan-esque vocals definitely have me leaning towards the Wild Nothing side though. Though Swords' offerings are catchier, Drahla's are a bit more captivating and creepy. "Stereo Maze" plods along on a dissonant guitar riff and a spooky synth melody that resembles a goofy sound effect that might appear in an early 00's PC game for kids. "Ethernet" is a surprisingly delicate tune, forming a dreamy soundscape from crunchy drum hits and fuzzed-out keys.


Review: Walk Home Drunk - "Toulouse Moon"

Walk Home Drunk - Toulouse Moon
(Pantypop 2015) 

When he's not whipping up whirlwinds of pop brutale as the guitarist of French punk trio The Last Drop, Daniel Selig adopts the name Walk Home Drunk, crafting introspective nuggets of wiry guitar rock with the help of his friend Jérônymous Bouquet on drums. Their third EP and most recent effort, Toulouse Moon, is a terse, punchy collection of post-punk tunes that fuse the glum grunge attitude of early Dinosaur Jr with the bouncy, smartly-layered twang of The Libertines. Selig's charmingly laconic vocal delivery floats ghost-like between warbly lead guitar riffs and rumbling power chords. Though minimal and - save for a few blasts of distortion - fairly clean, it's these twangy and often dark six-string arrangements that turn out to be Walk Home Drunk's most expressive feature. The motorik percussion and hushed singing act as the mortar that holds them together. The duo's sound blends most impressively on "Old Rules" - buzzsaw chords smoothly transition into tapestries of creamy krautrock melody, forming a tunnel that fully envelops the listener. Everything is moving forward at all times.


Half-Gifts Issue 15 + "cocoon" Compilation Out Now

Half-Gifts issue 15 includes interviews with BarlowNaked AntMa Turner and Funeral Advantage, as well as reviews of recent album releases, japanese soda and a novelty fast-food product. It also comes with a rad digital compilation album, comprised of fall-themed music made by half-gifts readers. You can stream that below. 

Order your copy of the zine HERE


Review: Ryan Hemsworth and Lucas - "Taking Flight"

Ryan Hemsworth and Lucas - Taking Flight
(2015 Secret Songs)

Taking Flight is to trap music what Beat Happening’s self-titled debut was to punk – a thorough re-imagining of the genre that replaces brutish masculinity with lovably juvenile emotion and off-kilter experimentation. While Washington’s Beat Happening built their aesthetic upon amateurish guitar chords and intentional mistakes, Hemsworth and Lucas, hailing from Canada and Seattle respectively, utilize spacey ambience and dreamy samples to accompany chopped-up slivers of hip-hop percussion. Taking Flight is a record that focuses on empty spaces – it mixes and matches traditional tropes of dance music to, paradoxically, create music that is rarely danceable. Instead, the EP acts as a sonic space heater, slowly filling your mind and soul with warm vibez. “Long Time” weaves a Yo La Tengo-esque drum loop through a waft of dreamy flutes and slap-chopped acoustic guitar. It’s not too far removed from the production on Drake’s Nothing Was The Same, come to think of it. Closing cut “You Remain” takes a bit of Travi$ Scott influence in its avant-trap approach, pairing ultra-bassy vocaloid groans with flecks of glitched-out dial-up tones.


Review: Loud and Sad - "unknown species"

Loud and Sad - unknown species
(2012 Greenup Industries) 

Though abstract and, at times, impenetrable, this record’s worth of ambling banjo riffs and electronic noodling is surprisingly accessible. To listen too closely, to try to take a deconstructive approach to unknown species is a mistake – the record is too unstructured, too organic to pick apart and analyze. Separated, these minimal arrangements of twangy pluckings, manipulated loops and ambient noise are rather clumsy and strange, but combined, they are sublime.

The Pennsylvanian duo fashions ecosystems of sound; the most immersive of these worlds appears halfway through unknown species’ B-side on “Beth”. Whispery hums of what I think is an oboe traverse like wispy clouds above an empty Archean earth, in anticipation of the ethereal guitar loops and percussive tectonic rumblings that later enter the picture. Each track is the birth of a new planet, abandoned as quickly as it is lovingly created. Such is the nature of improvisation. We humans can produce staggering beauty as accidentally as we can generate anything. It’s these haphazard masterpieces, moments of extemporaneous brilliance that are the rawest and most organic works of art one can absorb. This is experimental performance at its finest – primal, yet refined.



Review: Real Swell - "Adults"

Real Swell - Adults
(2015 Self-Released)

On the surface, Real Swell's most recent album appears to be yet another tape's worth of fuzz-laden twee, but attentive listening reveals the marbled blend of textures and influences that doesn't so much break the bedroom-pop mold as it does create a unique, heterogeneous recipe within that said mold. Kris Lavin, the head chef behind the London-based solo project, starts with a flaky pie crust of Teen Suicide's signature no-fi aesthetic, dripping with reverby angst. Within the crust sits a gelatinous pool of nostalgic flavors, from Ariel Pink's tongue-in-cheek glam goofiness - appearing quite prominently on the bouncy punk tune, "Puppy Party" - to antiquated cuts of synth pop like "Computer Dreams" and "Gifts", both of which bear a striking resemblance to Yazoo, the early 80s new wave duo comprised of Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet. There are also quite a few tracks that throw back to the inception of Brooklyn's Captured Tracks label, employing the wiry guitar tone often associated with acts like Blank Dogs, Beach Fossils and Christmas Island. Adults' 16 tracks are filled with screwball experimentation and charm, making for a release that grips one's attention throughout. Despite the record's consistency, its title track is a standout cut by far, trudging forward with moaning keyboards that bear the haunting spookiness of a Merrie Melodies soundtrack. 


Upcoming Autumn Compilation // Submissions Wanted

I've been in the mood to curate another Half-Gifts compilation lately, finding much inspiration in the gradual shift from summer to autumn and the metamorphosis that this seasonal change activates. The transformation isn't limited to the changing hues of the leaves that act as an autumnal canopy above my neighborhood - it's evident in many other facets of life. Plastic tombstones and faux wrought iron fences sprout from front lawns in anticipation of Halloween. Students' spirits are reined into the cozy mundanity of class schedules and hour long lectures. Band t-shirts develop a symbiotic relationship with unbuttoned flannels. Although these changes on their own are subtle, the fall is a period of constant flux. My aim for this compilation is to harness these vibes and create the perfect companion to the autumn months ahead, which, if you weren't aware, begin today. If you have the idea for a tune that fits with the theme, drop it in my inbox at jude.noel3@gmail.com by October 10. All genres are acceptable!


Single Review: DIIV - "Dopamine"

DIIV - "Dopamine"
(2015 Captured Tracks)

Though only three years have passed since the release of DIIV's much-anticipated freshman effort, Oshin, I feel as if I'm witnessing the band's resurrection. Though in the realm of music, a couple of years is by no means a great stretch of time, that time span between the band's full-length debut and the surprisingly quiet unveiling of "Dopamine" marks a signifigant epoch in the lives of both myself and frontman Zachary Cole Smith. For me, these three years have been pivotal in my own character development. Post-Oshin, I've entered college, felt more confident in my own opinions regarding art and have begun to feel like a truly independent person. It's as if DIIV's first two LPs act as rough bookends for my entry into teenagerdom and exit into adulthood. For Smith, the span has been a much more tumultuous period, but no less transformative. Since 2012, he's written and scrapped over 100 songs, faced conflict with multiple band members as well as an arrest in late 2013. Though new songs were often added to and/or dropped from the band's live setlist - like any dedictated member of DIIV's cult-like fanbase, I check regularly to see if any new live footage has been uploaded to Youtube - I felt as if the sequel to Oshin would never come. Even when I finally got the chance to catch a DIIV set in late 2014 at a Lexington Urban Outfitters, it felt more like I was attending a farewell tour, despite the wealth of new material on display.

At the tail end of this three year wait, "Dopamine" feels a bit anticlimatic, yet it is wholly satisfying, the sort of tune that doesn't grab your attention on your first listen, but worms its way into your subconscious, becoming a regular fixture on morning busrides and walks between classes. It's as beautiful as anything the Brooklyn krautrock quartet has dropped to date, cozily wrapped in buttery reverb and propelled by distant motorik percussion. Centered around a hypnotically repetitious lead guitar riff, "Dopamine" slowly gathers noise and distortion, building up to a triumphant burst of shoegazey fuzz in the outro, a satisfying conclusion to my ascent into adulthood.