Includes an in-depth look back at my favorite records of the year and a handful of guest retrospectives done by my friends.
Chestnut Bakery - Diaries
(2015 BoringProductions/Full Label)
The internet has mysterious ways of bending the dimensions of time and space, most interestingly in terms of culture/subculture - in the realm of music it offers such a glut of material for enthusiasts to chew on and digest via Bandcamp/Soundcloud/Discogs that the areas and ideas within this cultural dominion that I focus on seem to be in a constant solvent state. This acidic breakdown encourages scenes to fracture into tiny pockets of influence, creating an accessible space for bold individuals to experiment with new sounds and letting fans get to know band members better as individuals (to the point where New England jangle-pop outfit Real Estate houses three solo artists who released material this year). Rapid as this solvency may be, there is always a gluey, adhesive force of equal power that scrambles to attach the scattered debris back to the Cultural Web, building infinitely smaller, more niche nodes within the web's outer border, keeping its fluctuation of size in check. This regeneration forms fascinating, small-scale collectives like Full Label, a Cantonese digital-only imprint dedicated to reviving the elegantly fragile indie-pop of early 90s UK-based label Sarah Records. The latest (and most polished) twee transmission from the Guangdong province is Diaries: the debut effort of Chestnut Bakery that's as warm and feathery as its cover art and band's name suggests. It's western-influenced guitar pop that's actually a improvement over its British source material - a modern marvel that it exists and a greater on that I'm hearing it from the comfort of my own home a hemisphere away.
The quartet hails from Shenzhen, China's equivalent of Silicon Valley, and has dubbed themselves "the most 90s shoegaze band in [the country]", a claim that they back up with substantial evidence: Diaries acts as a sampler platter of late 20th century dream pop textures. The band uses a generous hand with reverb on "Saturday Afternoon", flooding the atmosphere with glistening guitar while letting its nimble basslines handle the brunt of expression - the gentle twang of strummed six-strings paired with frontwoman Rye's hushed delivery recall a creamier version of The Sundays' prickly punch of c86 pop. 7-minute centerpiece "Moon Palace" explores the dreamy psychedelia of Slowdive - perhaps even Julee Cruise(?) - slowly building from a muffled, phase-shifted drone to a post-rock fireworks display of explosive lead guitar theatrics. "Tunnel Party" and "Cream Soda" ratchet up the distortion, crafting Melberg-ian punk soundscapes. Though much of Diaries is noticeably derivative, I find the amount of the Cultural Web's surface area that it covers to be quite impressive: though Chestnut Bakery holds firm to a single guitar tone and overall aesthetic, no two songs of theirs sound quite alike. That's what makes Diaries such a satisfying and polished debut. Definitely worth a listen and multiple replays.
Earl Sweatshirt - I Don't Like I Don't Go Outside
(Columbia 2k15)Whether under or above ground, hip-hop was dripping in gloomy melancholia in 2k15, and none of the year’s releases personifies the genre’s funereal sub-aesthetics more than Earl Sweatshirt’s IDLSIDGO – his flow brusque and his self-production ramshackle. Tinny kick drums squelch like death rattles while the occasional piano sample or splash of chord organ whines in the background. Dark ambient loops haunt “Grief” like a wintry draft through the crack between a window’s pane and sill. Chopped-and-slowed jazz trickles through clumsy percussion on “AM // RADIO”. The record’s instrumentals are centered more around the empty spaces they leave behind than the sounds they create. Earl seems to emerge from these empty shadows rather than jump into them with enthusiasm – he lives inside the beats. Each new track is a vouyeristic look into the worlds he inhabits. They’re high-school diorama projects. We peek through the portal and catch him mid-breakdown on “Grief”, an introspective, realistic portrayal of anxiety that finds Earl “stranded in a mob”, retreating from the crowd of “snakes” to take refuge in a Xanax canister. He prays for his phone to break on “Faucet”, a track birthed from the tension between Earl and his mother after leaving home as a teenager. He and RATKING’s Wiki reminisce about childhood on the aforementioned “AM // RADIO” before Earl expresses his apathy towards his raving cult fanbase. This record is a perfect portrait of the sort of anxiety that stems from the vast interconnectivity of our day-to-day lives, be it online or in real life. The distinction between the two is getting blurrier, anyhow. In an interview with Pitchfork back in 2013, Earl expressed his disgust with Twitter, but to this day he’s quite active on the site. For the socially anxious, the pull away from social interaction is often weaker than the forces that pull us back into the realm of communication. IDLSIDGO demonstrates that feeling of frustration, of bitter aloneness perfectly. I am part of the first generation to have no memory of a time when the internet was not in widespread youth and I'm looking quite forward to analyzing more of the sort of art that stems from this new paradigm.
Belle and Sebastian - Fold Your Hands Child You Walk Like a Peasant
As I aged, the album’s warm, flannel-ly imagery became somewhat tainted as teenage world-weariness seeped into my bloodstream. I began to see the “sinister” nature that loomed beneath the façade of its woodland animals and schoolyard rhymes. Murdoch’s songwriting dealt with dejection, deviancy and experimentation as much as it did the excitement of a snow day or the hum of insects on a muggy summer evening. It was all-encompassing, microcosmic even. There’s a quotable lyric tucked away in the liner notes of Sinister for by someone of any age or mindset.
Perhaps it’s the childhood nostalgia I reflected on back in issue 15 of my zine, a fear that I’ve grown up too fast, that sends me back to Belle and Sebastian in 2015. The twee playfulness that oozes from Murdoch’s tunesmithery allows me a sense of childlike wonder, while there’s enough rich subtext to keep my late-teenage mind properly stimulated. Lately, I’ve been revisiting the band’s 4th effort, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant, 15 years after its original release date. It may lack some of the consistency and coherence that makes Sinister so legendarily satisfying, but it makes up for it in creativity and sheer pluck. Most notably, it contains standout cut “The Model”, which charges forward on nimble harpsichord melodies and a groovy rock n’ roll rhythm section. But there are many other highlights. Guitarist Stevie Jackson strums out an awkward-yet-tender ballad on “Beyond the Sunrise” while cellist Isobel Campbell lends her feathery vocal to “Family Tree”, a lovely bit of chamber-pop doo-wop that leads into the record’s triumphant closer, “There’s Too Much Love”. Though often overlooked, Fold Your Hands is a beautifully collaborative effort that stands up strong in a B+S catalogue filled with hits - it's the sort of record that may not top a list of your all-time favorites but will always remain a constant in your rotation, sneaking into your conscious when it's most needed
It's that time of year again! This year's holiday season will mark the third anniversary of the Half-Gifts Christmas Compilation and the series' most interesting installment to date - this time around, rather than collecting your covers of traditional Christmas tunes, I'm looking to curate a collection of ambient soundscapes that clock in at 90 seconds or less. Whether your track is a sound collage, field recording or vaporwave loop, just make sure it's laced with winter frost and falls within the time limit. Get creative and try to bottle the essence of December in your compositions.
Deadline for submission is December 21. Email me at email@example.com when you have something to send my way!