Huh. So that’s what going to one of those big, weekend-long festivals feels like! It was a fun weekend, even with 8-9 hour days of walking and standing. The best part of a festival experience is getting to see so many bands you’d be interested in at once. I’m so excited that I finally got to experience it, but I think one festival experience might be enough for me. Well, at least until next year's Forecastle lineup gets released and I get suckered into another amazing looking weekend! Here are some of the highlights of Forecastle Festival 2018 by festival day! Day 1 - Friday Let’s start with the basic layout of the fest. The fest was in Louisville’s Waterfront Park, which is a cool, gigantic green space right on the Ohio River that has an I-64 overpass running right over the middle of the park. It was a neat space that seemed like it’d be fantastic to hang out in. There were five stages set up in the park: the Mast stage which is the gigantic, center main stage, the Boom stage, the Ocean stage, the Port stage which focused on local acts, and the Party Cove, a landed boat set up for a rave! I'm With Her I started my fest off by catching I’m With Her, and man are Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aiofe O’Donovan talented! These three are a folk supergroup and deserve all of your attention. Even though their set was kind of quiet, it was just overflowing with skill and beautiful sounds. The closest they got to having any bass was Watkins using her electric guitar as a bass for a song, and all the rest of their instruments were acoustic guitar/violin/mandolin, so the sound system wasn’t being particularly flexed. They also pulled out a cover of Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” toward the end of the set, and you should go listen to a version of it right now because they just nail it. Lucero On the other end of the volume spectrum, Lucero made me realize how many speakers they really have stacked up on those festival stages. These guys were far and away the hardest rocking set of the whole weekend. During the set, lead singer, Ben Nichols, openly questioned his decision to stay out until 4AM the night before. Even though the heat and the hangover may have kept them off of their very best game, they absolutely delivered on the kind of badass set that their recorded music promised. They even balanced out that hard drinking and rocking with one of the most adorable moments of the festival, when the band played a song that Nichols wrote for his (soon to be two-year-old) daughter’s first birthday. It was goofy and so, so sweet. Wax Fang I wish I could have spent more time at the local music tent over the weekend. Wax Fang was the only band I got to catch more than one song from, and they were so fun. They were super high energy, weird space rock. The lead singer was wearing a Cyclops-style eye visor. Of what I saw, they had the only theremin of the weekend and then kicked that theremin over in true rock star fashion after they were done with it. It was weird and different and honestly great, which is exactly what you want from a good local band. Father John Misty [gallery link="file" size="medium" ids="15147,15148,15149"] The divide between Josh Tillman the person and Father John Misty the stage persona is insane. Moments of Tillman came through in the set, like in the awkward, quiet moments between songs, or when he stopped “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” in the middle because he saw someone collapse up front and he wanted to make sure they were okay. He’s a pleasant, kind of reserved guy. Father John Misty isn’t human at all. When a song is playing, he turns into a giant ball of psychedelic, sardonic energy, with wild, flailing dance moves, vocals that fluctuated from a wry deadpan to intense emotion in a second, and some of the most bitter social commentary lyrics around. Seriously, “True Comedy” is a nasty, angry song, and it’s great for it. Vance Joy Vance Joy is an adorable teddy bear of a human being, and I would like to be his friend. The best part of what I caught of his set was when he would explain what each song was about, and made it abundantly clear that he is a loving, caring person. He just wants everyone to be able to be happy, even in the aftermath of something like a breakup. I would like more people around with that mindset, please. Modest Mouse [gallery columns="2" size="medium" link="file" ids="15151,15153"] Apparently, I don’t know Modest Mouse’s music as well as I thought I did, because I didn’t recognize like half the tracks they played. But it honestly didn’t matter because the set was still super fun. It was loud, it was jangly, it was chaotic. It was kinda scream-y and I couldn’t understand a single thing Isaac Brock said or sang. It’s exactly what I was hoping for from a Modest Mouse concert. They kept us wanting more (their set was an hour and fifteen minutes), but otherwise it was a great cap to Day 1. Day 2 - Saturday Saturday was a bit overshadowed by the other two fest days, but all the artists I spent time with on Saturday were still really good and enjoyable. [gallery link="file" size="medium" columns="2" ids="15154,15169,15175,15173,15174,15170"] Houndmouth Houndmouth turned out to be the big surprise of the festival for me with a really fun set. They’re a Louisville-area band, so the crowd was hot for them and they delivered with a rollicking set that was just rough enough around the edges to be incredibly charming. Houndmouth’s keyboard player also had the first legit mullet I’ve seen in years, which is certainly one way to let the world know that a band is from Kentuckiana. Day 3 - Sunday Sunday had, without question, the three best sets of the weekend. To be fair, two of those sets are bands that I already knew were incredible live, but that doesn’t take away from how amazing they were at Forecastle. Trampled By Turtles The first amazing set was Trampled By Turtles. It’s been four or five years since I saw them last, but they’re still the fastest band in bluegrass. You can really only appreciate how fast they all can play when you see them in person. If you just listen to one of their songs, for example their new single “Kelly’s Bar”, the immediate reaction is that these guys play fast, upbeat bluegrass. If you get the notion to get out your guitar or banjo and try and play along, you realize that it is so hard to keep up with. These guys are playing way faster than I’m used to, but then when you see them live and see how fast their hands are actually moving, it just blows you away. Also, “Alone” and “Midnight on the Interstate” are still two of the best, most emotional songs for me to hear live. They’re beautiful songs, and perfect representations of love tinged with the sadness and loneliness that comes with life. Punch Brothers Oh my sweet lord, the Punch Brothers were so, so good. I was originally only going to stay for like half this set because I wanted to see Jason Isbell, but they were on fire that I just got sucked in to the entire show. If they had been able to play for maybe 15 minutes longer, then it would have easily been the best show of the entire weekend. They split the hour set evenly between songs from their new album and their back catalogue. Their past hits were all amazing, but the new stuff was all so good that I would have bought a copy of the album immediately if I could have found one somewhere on the festival grounds. Punch Brothers were also the only set that really made the early set hour-time-limits feel like not enough, and the giant “One more song!” chant after they left the stage confirmed that I was not alone in thinking that. Speaking of the Punch Brothers, Chris Thile really is one of the best performers today. When he’s singing, you can see every ounce of emotion that’s in the lyrics reflected in his face. The shift from cocky confidence to desperation to anger to sadness as they went through “Another New World” was incredible. When he’s playing, he is physically inhabiting his music, jerking and bobbing and gyrating around in synch with his mandolin solos. He is, without question, the best mandolin player alive right now, and it’s awe inspiring to watch a genius work his craft up-close like this. Tyminski Before we get to the big finale, the other set I was interested in from Sunday was Dan Tyminski, performing as Tyminski. I’m not a huge fan of the new Tyminski album now that I’ve had some time to check it out. I get what he’s going for, and it’s clearly inspired by the collaboration he did with the late Avicii, but it’s over-processed and flattened by production, which takes away from the outsized voice and sound a long-time music vet like Dan Tyminski can bring to the table. But live, those same songs popped like crazy because you can’t flatten out Dan Tyminski live. The songs came out as big, gruff, well-written country rockers with just enough of a hint of electronic influence to be interesting, rather than being dominated and washed out by the electronic bits. Dan Tyminski is an incredible musician and deserves this kind of solo recognition at this point in his career. Hopefully, he can channel this live awesomeness into a slightly better, more well-rounded second solo album. Arcade Fire Finally, the best set of the festival: Arcade Fire. I was already hyped for this set because I’m a long-time Arcade Fire fan, but they just completely blew me away. You could tell that these guys are a band who regularly play for tens of thousands of people, rather than the hundreds to a few thousands that the other bands in the festival might reach during their usual tours. They had a giant light set-up including a massive disco ball, all kinds of video fun going on, and plenty of choreographed weirdness, especially from Regine Chassagne. They knew how to get a tired festival crowd fired up too, stacking their set with their biggest, hypest songs from their entire discography. Win Butler was even happy to throw in a few extremely pointed political jabs, adding a line about refugees to “Here Comes the Night Time” and telling a story before “Intervention” about how Chassagne’s Haitian refugee father served in Vietnam, while the current president didn’t do anything. They closed the show and the festival with “Wake Up," which was way more cathartic than I was expecting. Turns out just screaming along to the opening chants of that song with thousands of other people is extremely cleansing. Even as their albums get a little more hit-or-miss with the fans, it’s great to know that these guys still put on an absolutely incredible show. I would be happy to go extremely out of my way to see Arcade Fire live again in the future. [gallery size="medium" link="file" ids="15161,15160,15162,15163,15165,15164"] As Arcade Fire left the stage, Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” came on over the loudspeakers to let everyone know the set was over. So as everyone started to leave, the entire crowd just started to sing along. I don’t know if there could have been a more perfect, pleasant ending to the weekend than a park full of people smiling and walking and dancing along into the night as they sang the do-do-do's from that song together. It was a perfect moment, and a perfect image to leave this recap with.
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This year’s festival lineups have been a weird beast. When most of the major festivals were announced, their lineups felt incoherent, like they were just grabbing as many big names as they could without concerns for fit or overarching vibe. By trying to appeal to as many people and genres as possible, the biggest festivals this year felt uninspired and unessential. A festival is best when it provides a deep collection of artists in the same genres and niches that would allow a fan to enjoy a weekend full of their favorite artists, plus a number of potential new favorites. Fortunately, Louisville’s Forecastle Fest is offering a carefully curated alternative to all of those other slapdash festivals this summer. There are three major types of musical offerings at this festival, which are organized by stage. The Port Stage and Party Cove are both filled with local Louisville musical offerings, the Ocean stage is primarily hip-hop/R&B (with some ventures into EDM and pop), and the Mast and Boom stages are heavily alt-country/bluegrass/folk-rock, with a healthy mix of big indie rock names for the less adventurous. This lineup is pretty deep and seems super fun, so let’s break down some of the bands I’m most excited to see on each day. [Note: Since I’m not super familiar with the Louisville music scene or most of the Ocean Stage artists, I’m going to refrain from previewing them (except to say that T-Pain is dope as hell and I will be seeing part of his set as a gift to middle-school Mitchell)]. Friday I'm With Her (Boom Stage, 3:45-4:45) https://youtu.be/bkZhn8DT-PE This is a fairly new super group (though they did get the name before it was Hillary’s catch-phrase) made up of Sara Watkins (of Nickel Creek fame), Aoife O’Donovan (of Crooked Still, among other projects), and Sarah Jarosz. They make fantastic, woman-centric bluegrass music, which is a breath of fresh air in such a male-dominated genre. All three of them are absurdly talented on their own, and together they made a great debut album (2018’s See You Around). Seeing these three would be a great way to kick off your festival experience if you miss the first round of shows. Lucero (Boom Stage, 5:30-6:30) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YeswNPymEuA Long-time country rockers (together since the late 90’s) Lucero have been on my to-see list for years now, but their concerts have just never quite lined up with when I could go to a show. I’m excited to finally see their hard-rocking, whiskey-and-cigarette-fueled music and have them bring some much-needed energy to the middle of a hot Kentucky afternoon. Just be forewarned: Lead singer Ben Nichols’ voice is not for the light-hearted. It’s harsh and aggressive and he’s been hard on it over the years, so maybe avoid this one if you prefer your singers to have crystal clear, healthy voices. Father John Misty (Mast Stage, 8:00-9:15) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5B5IGqyy2s The last time I saw Father John Misty was in 2016, which was two albums and some significant mellowing out (both in personality and musical style) ago, but I’m sure his stage presence hasn’t changed a ton since then. When I’ve seen him in the past, he’s been a lively, if somewhat quiet, force on stage. He’s not one to talk a ton between songs, and he’s definitely not one for the stories other bands will tell about their music, but he’s still happy to snark it up and crack some jokes on stage. In other words, he’s always working to make sure people having some fun. I’m really interested in seeing how his two most recent albums translate to the stage, so I’m planning on seeing this entire set. Modest Mouse (Mast Stage, 10:15-11:30) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=penvn9VL32Y Modest Mouse is one of the bands that got me into indie music way back when, but I’ve never been able to see them live. I’ve heard from friends and writers that their shows can be a bit hit or miss depending on the setlist and Isaac Brock’s mood. But, their music has been enjoyably fantastic for over 20 years now. Even if they’re a bit bored of their role as a festival mainstay by this point in their career (or even just this point in the summer), it’ll still be a great experience to say I’ve finally gotten to see these legends live. Saturday Margo Price (Boom Stage, 5:30-6:30) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtxUDSRfmto Margo Price is one of country’s biggest rising stars right now because she brings an authentic, woman-focused voice to yet another male-dominated genre. She’s happy to be critical of politics, people, and the music business in her music, and wraps all of that in a slick, traditional Nashville sound. I got to see her as a part of Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Fest last year, and she had a great, energetic set to kick off the sets that I saw. I would highly recommend her set, especially if you want to try and get Nashville to stop making bro-pop country and make something authentic again. Jimmy Eat World (Mast Stage, 5:45-6:45) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=komeC7vkaoc I mean, sure, why not? I didn’t really realize these guys were still around until one of their new songs started getting a good bit of radio play in the last year or two, but “The Middle” is a classic, and the new stuff is good and slots in really well in today’s indie-rock dominated environment. Go check out this set and see what these guys have been up to in the 17 years since their hit rocked the world. The War on Drugs (Boom Stage, 9:15-10:30) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkHwBVnutjM Oh man, I’m so excited to see these guys. Their albums are consistently some of my favorite things to listen to, and the bits of them live that I’ve seen (primarily the times they’ve popped up on Letterman) are absolutely electric. They’re guitar wizards, and excel at making dreamy soundscapes that you can just get lost in and dance away the night to. And that is exactly what I’ll be doing Saturday night. Feel free to join me. Chris Stapleton (Mast Stage, 10:00-11:30) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zAThXFOy2c For years, Chris Stapleton has been hailed as the one to bring the “country” back to country music and radio. His music’s been raking in awards since his debut album in 2016, and he’s been constantly lauded in every way in the past few years. While I’m not sure his music is *that* much better or revolutionary compared to a lot of other musicians with slightly lower profiles (see: Jason Isbell, who is coincidentally playing Sunday), he’s still damn good, and he keeps getting asked to headline festivals so he must put on a damn good show. Sunday Tyminski (Boom Stage, 3:15-4:00) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3RjWJMOuSQ Most people don’t know Dan Tyminski by name, but they definitely know music he’s worked on. When he’s not doing his solo stuff, he’s been a long-time member of Allison Kraus’s band Union Station, and he’s best known, but rarely credited for, being the voice behind O Brother, Where Art Thou’s version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” (I hate to break it to you, but no, that is not George Clooney singing that). He’s always been a crazy talented bluegrass artist, but with his Tyminski project, he’s exploring a very different sound by bringing in a lot of electronic pop/rock influences. It’s a weird sound, but I’m very intrigued by it. It should make for a very interesting live set. Trampled by Turtles (Mast Stage, 5:15-6:15) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9TlWXAdv1Y TBT is just straight up one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen. These guys play punk-influenced bluegrass at the speed of light, and their new album is a return to their string-burning ways after a few mellower outings. Just come to this set with a whiskey and/or cheap beer in hand and get ready to have your mind blown by some extremely fun music played at a pace you probably didn’t think was humanly possible. Punch Brothers (Boom Stage, 6:45-7:45) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUmeRZnQGKI While TBT is one of the best bands I’ve seen live, I think Punch Brothers may be *the* best band I’ve had the privilege to see in person. These five are some of, if not the best, to play their instruments in the world right now and can make music with a traditional five-piece bluegrass set-up that shouldn’t be possible. Seriously, just go look up their cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A.” And then go listen to “Flippen.” I’ll wait for you. Ok, back? Yeah, these boys have range. And that’s just some of their instrumentals. These guys are ridiculous. I am just going to go ahead and pencil this one into your schedule. The only bad thing about this set is that it overlaps so much with Jason Isbell’s. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (Mast Stage, 7:15-8:15) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivYkyC8J29M Jason Isbell is simply one of the best songwriters around today in any genre. If you can listen to “If We Were Vampires” and not cry, you are honestly probably already a vampire and we need to have words (and possibly stakes). Isbell is also a fun Twitter follow, and seems like a genuinely great person. He’s been selling out all kinds of amphitheaters lately, which is usually a sign of a good performer, and he’s recently rocketed up my list of artists I really need to see live. This is a safe bet for a great show, and I think Isbell has a good chance of being the highlight of the whole festival for me. Arcade Fire (Mast Stage, 9:10-11:00) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zC30BYR3CUk If you’re coming to this festival, you know who Arcade Fire are. They’re the biggest band in indie music and have been for years. They’re epic and awe-inducing, and make some truly inspired and unique music. Everything Now was super catchy and ear-worm-y. There’s a reason these guys are closing out the entire festival. Don’t kid yourself, you’re going to see Arcade Fire. And it’s going to be epic.
It’s been a bit! Finals and life and other things threw me a bit off schedule, but we’re back and I’m ready to tear into more 90s music. I feel like most of what needs to be said about this album is with the songs themselves, so I’ll make this intro brief. NOW 2 was released in July 1999, 8 months after the initial volume. Because the late 90s were a weird time for music and because this series was still in its early days, this album has another very odd mix of sounds, and includes a number of bands that really don’t feel like they belong in a series like this. With all that in mind, let’s get to it: Britney Spears – “…Baby One More Time” The Princess of Pop is this volume’s big addition to the pop star canon. Spears exploded onto the radio at 17 with what, by what I can tell, is still the single biggest hit song of her career, along with being the only #1 hit on this volume. She was a legitimate cultural icon through her first few albums, and “One More Time” was *everywhere* for a few years. She also paved the way for basically every teen Disney pop star that populates the airwaves today. We can talk about her public collapse when it happens here, but for now we can focus on the meteoric rise. This song has a great, funky sound that fits right in with every other major pop group (it really lays a trail for *NSYNC in particular, because this sounds a loooot like “Bye Bye Bye”). It’s also a song that’s dripping with sex appeal, in both lyrical content and Spears’s vocal inflections. The sex appeal is part of what propelled Spears to stardom and made this song a huge hit, but it’s also something that makes the song feel super skeevy. The choice by songwriter/producer extraordinaire Max Martin to lean as hard as possible into the sexuality of a 16/17 year old girl feels very exploitative and uncomfortable, but any concerns about that seem to have been tossed aside in the name of making an undeniable hit. It’s a banger of a song, but it’s a song with some real issues hiding just beneath the surface. New Radicals – “You Get What You Give” Who’s ready for another week of 90’s Post-Grunge One-Hit Wonders? I swear I know this song, but I feel like I’ve never heard this version of it and I have no idea who the cover I’ve heard was by (it may have been The Maine’s version, but I’m nowhere near certain). In any case, this is a fun as hell song that’s really given life by lead man (and only actual permanent New Radicals member) Gregg Alexander’s unorthodox vocal rhythms. I feel like this song may not have made a huge musical impact on the scene when it was first released, but its structure and sound really feel like a forbearer to today’s alt rock radio. Robbie Williams – “Millennium” This is an extremely odd track that seems like it didn’t make a huge splash in the US that I’m going to chalk up to the UK organizers of the NOW series putting their thumb on the scales a bit in the early volumes. Honestly, the sound for this song is hard to pin down, but it’s kind of a mash between the 90s Brit-pop framework and Beck’s most recent albums, by way of “Bittersweet Symphony”. It’s an extremely weird combination that I think is mostly driven by Williams’s vocals and the big string section in the back. It doesn’t really work for me, and, judging by Williams’s US chart performances, it apparently didn’t work for US audiences either. He may be hot shit back in the UK, but here ends Robbie Williams’s foray into American pop. Semisonic – “Closing Time” Nearly 20 years later, and this song is still used to close down plenty of bars as a polite but stern “Please get the fuck out so we all can go to bed.” It’s held on for so long not just because of its title and lyrics, but also because it has a timeless sound. Like, it is very clearly a product of the late 90s post-grunge/alt-rock movements if you listen to it with its contemporaries, but it still sounds very good and interesting as rock music today. It’s aged much, much better than its pop contemporaries. It has emotional heft, a guitar riff you can move your head to, and lyrics that are very easy to sing along to (best done at extremely loud volumes). U2 – “Sweetest Thing” Originally a Joshua Tree B-side, this track got re-recorded and released as a Greatest Hits album single, which I feel tells you everything you need to know about the quality of this track. It’s slight, an afterthought of a U2 track that was just coasting on the skill and effort of one of their best periods of work. I feel like I should spend about as much effort talking about this track as it sounds like they did making it, so I’m going to stop talking about it right…… now. Sheryl Crow – “My Favorite Mistake” I feel like Sheryl Crow gets an unfair rap as a purveyor of bland-ish adult alternative music (though maybe that’s just me). A lot of her music is quite good and interesting, and definitely deserves a deeper listen if you feel up to it. This track in particular is an Americana track that’s given a pop tinge by Crow’s breezy, flat vocals. I think Crow’s voice is where a lot of the “bland” idea comes from, but that’s just kinda how she sounds, and it really shouldn’t take away from the interesting things happening in her music outside of just her voice. Fatboy Slim – “Praise You” Somehow, the major Fatboy Slim singles, especially this one, are still a thing today. Sample-heavy late-90s electronic music doesn’t immediately seem like a thing that would age well, but whatever magic Fatboy Slim put into his production hasn’t aged a day. Much like how “Closing Time” is ageless rock, this song sounds like it could have been put together by some indie DJ in the past month and it would still fit in perfectly. It’s slightly weird, very grooveable, and insanely catchy. Some of Slim’s other music may potentially not have aged as well (I’m very interested in revisiting “Rockerfeller Skank” in a volume or two), but “Praise You” is about as perfect a song as you could ask for. Garbage – “I Think I’m Paranoid” All I remember about Garbage is that my elementary school best friend’s sister was super into them at the time. I didn’t get it then, and I still don’t particularly get it now. This song has touches of The Cranberries, “Sex & Candy” and the early fringes of nu-metal. It coheres, but not into a package I care for or will go out of my way to listen to again. If you’re into nu-metal but kinda wished it was a little less aggressive and more female-led, then this might be your thing. Otherwise, meh. Cake – “Never There” Cake feels like it should absolutely not belong on this album. I adore Cake, but I don’t think they’re a particularly “cool” (they are extremely cool to me, but I feel like they’re not cool to the general populace) or pop band. This is the equivalent of Radiohead’s inclusion on Volume 1, and the kind of inclusion that more or less gets shaken out of the system by the next volume. In any case, Cake is wonderful, as is this song. After years of listening to them, I still don’t really know how to label Cake’s sound, but it’s all wonderful bass and brass horns and mostly monotone spoken word lyrics. It’s such a weird and unique style, and “Never There” is a perfect encapsulation of it. 98° -- “Because of You” Ah yes, here’s the other other major boyband of the period. They were so thoroughly eclipsed by Backstreet and *NSYNC that the only real cultural memory I can associate with them is the fact that breakout star Nick Lachey was briefly married to (and had a reality show with) Jessica Simpson. If early 2000s boy bands were Carolina college basketball teams, these guys would be NC State. No matter how successful they were (and they were pretty successful!), they were always going to be an afterthought in the dust of those two giants. Based on this single song at least, they very much deserved that afterthought rank in history. This song is flat, bland, and poorly put together. The track has all of the hallmarks of a late-90s pop song (overbearing drum track, gentle classical guitar, random bursts from string sections, little electronic pops), but instead of all of these pieces coming together in a semi-sensible manner like they would on a Backstreet or Britney Spears track, they manage to actively work against each other. Every lyric is delivered with maximum breathiness, which I think was supposed to give a sexy vibe but mostly just comes across as trying too hard to be flirty after a semi-vigorous gym session. Let’s give this song one of those “You Tried” gold stars, and leave it at that. Spice Girls – “Goodbye” See, here’s a song that has the drum track and the strings and the guitar and makes it fit together in a nice, clean package. Do better Lachey brothers. Anyways, this was the Spice Girls’ first post-Ginger Spice single, and the first single from their last album together. It’s a very solid, touching, sad song about goodbyes that apparently was not written about Ginger initially, but is very extremely about Ginger in the context that it was recorded and released in. If you ever need a song for a breakup or something where you’re sad it’s over, but still happy it happened and wish the best for the other person, you could do much worse than this song. Outside of that context though, I don’t really see myself ever reaching for this song for any reason in particular. Blackstreet (ft. Mya, Mase, and Blinky Blink) – “Take Me There” Oh man, Rugrats. And The Rugrats Movie. Good times. I very clearly remember seeing that movie in theaters, but remember almost nothing about it besides it having a few extremely emotional moments, kind of wanting a baby brother after seeing it, and that the monkeys in the movie were fucking terrifying. Apparently Blackstreet got in on the movie soundtrack because they found out the Nickelodeon crew loved their music and the band wanted a chance to appeal more to the kids. So, they made an R&B song that’s built around the Rugrats theme song, which absolutely should not work at all, but it works so, so well. The backing track here really is incredible, especially if you’re listening to it in nice headphones or surround-sound speakers. The two Bad Boy rappers put in enjoyable guest verses, even when they’re straight up rapping about Tommy Pickles. And the whole track really belongs to Mya, who provides the gorgeous chorus and a solid verse of her own to start the song with. This is the gold standard for what any novelty-ish, soundtrack-tied song should be. R. Kelly – “When a Woman’s Fed Up” R. Kelly is quite possibly the single most problematic individual (give or take Chris Brown, eventually) that’s going to come up in this series, and he is going to come up a lot, because despite everything he seems to have done, he has still been able to make just a prodigious amount of music. He’s a trash person and (allegedly) a repeated sexual predator. He was also a hugely popular and influential R&B artist who put out one of the greatest pop songs of all time (“Ignition (Remix)”). Kelly is awful and finally seems to be getting the scorn he deserves, but in history, and particularly in pop history it seems, awful people have to be dealt with to get the complete picture. This song is a true R&B burner. It sounds smooth as hell, with gorgeous instrumentals and some fun vocal layering. The lyrics are all failed relationships and regrets and a surprising amount of narrative and character. Kelly pours every ounce of emotion he can into the lyrics here. This is a really easy song to get lost in and end up endlessly grooving and singing along to. Honestly, this would be some great bedroom music, if not for the subject matter and the man behind the music, and unfortunately those are both massive mood-killers. Everclear – “Father of Mine” I mentioned this a bit last time, but the NOW series really got me into Everclear in my elementary school days. They were the first modern rock band I really liked, and looking back on it, they really shaped some of my musical preferences today. And this is THE quintessential Everclear song. It’s got a fun riff, a cheery sound covering some extremely heavy content, and, most importantly, all of the daddy issues. This wasn’t Everclear’s biggest hit at the time (though it was absolutely a hit), but I think it’s been their song that’s had the longest shelf life. I think that’s partially because this song just flat out rocks and is fun as hell to listen to, and partially because it’s painfully relatable and understandable for anyone who’s had serious issues with a parent (fortunately, I never had those issues, but I’ve heard about that life from plenty of friends who’ve lived it). This song gets personal catharsis while being eminently listenable, which is one of the hardest balancing acts to pull off. Sublime – “What I Got” Light one up and go rub your crushed velvet posters, because it’s Sublime time. Everyone’s favorite stoner dub rock music seems like it is still somehow as ever-present today as it was when it was released 20 years ago. Seriously, this song still seems to get so much airtime on rock radio (especially when I was living in Western New York, where white boy reggae rock is somehow one of the most popular regional genres). It’s one of the few non-current songs that qualifies as still overplayed for me. I kinda get its popularity, because this is a feel good, happy-go-lucky song to unwind to at the end of the day. But this is a song that should be left in everyone’s sophomore year of college or so. Let’s move on to better things together. There are better chill anthems around. There are better bands to get high to. We can cherish our Sublime memories, but let’s go move onto something new now, okay? Okay. Backstreet Boys – “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” Do you remember the music to the “Dire Dire Docks” level in Super Mario 64? That’s all I can think of when I hear the guitar part in this song. Outside of that bit of lovely goofiness, this is a great, Motown-y song that clowns all over 98°’s attempt at something similar from earlier. This song makes fantastic use of vocal harmonies, backing vocals, and overlapping leads. If you have multiple people in a group who can really sing, it makes sense to do more with their voices than just have them swapping lead parts, and this song really goes for that in the choruses. It lets everyone (or at least I think everyone? I can’t really tell who’s who here) flex their skills some and provides some interesting vocal contrasts. Now that I’m getting back into the swing of the great Boy Band Debate of the late-90s, I feel somewhat comfortable saying that while *NSYNC may have had the bigger hits and the better musical sound, Backstreet was doing more interesting things with the members of the group as vocal instruments. I will be sure to keep a lookout for these trends in future issues. Jay-Z – “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” This is probably one of the more uncomfortable songs an extremely white, goofy, 10-ish year old me could have been very into. And I was into it, because the beat and the Annie-sampled chorus were, for some reason, very alluring to young me. That this was a very good and classic rap song didn’t really dawn on me until much later. But this is a very good song from a hot, rising Jay-Z that gives a pretty honest view of life in the rough streets. There’s some glorification happening here, but a lot of it doesn’t try to sugarcoat anything. This Jay is a young, angry, hungry rapper who’s trying to come from a life of nothing and will himself into being a star. He’s seen some shit, and he’s going to let you know all about it. Baz Luhrmann – “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” What the hell is this? Why was this a hit? Like, it’s interesting and unique, but a 5-minute spoken word song should never have made it anywhere outside the place of an artsy last track on a particularly hopeful-feeling electronic/pop album. I know this was done as a part of the Romeo+Juliet soundtrack, and all I can assume is that it was propelled to hit status purely on the back of Leo DiCaprio’s endless, youthful charm. Nothing else possibly makes sense. Man, the late 90’s were a gloriously dumb time. https://open.spotify.com/user/nowthatsmusicus/playlist/7n0Tws3lyqU3SIIhaGnBMK?si=QHxT92FyQ225s7SNyd4fIg Next time: We welcome two blissfully dumb, eternal music memes to the stage.
Scott (left) and Grant Hutchinson of Frightened Rabbit during their 2009 Pitchfork performance. Image Courtesy of Heidi Weber, https://www.flickr.com/photos/dirty_black_chucks/3736979274/, No Changes Made CW: Mentions of Suicide Well, this wasn’t the article I was expecting to write this week. Hell, this wasn’t even the Scott Hutchison-related article I was expecting to write this week. Now that the semester is over, I was finally going to take the time to write a few hundred glowing words about the debut album from his newest side-project, mastersystem. But instead, something terrible’s happened and now I have to write an obituary for my favorite musician. I figured this was coming since Grant Hutchison, his brother and bandmate, first announced Scott was missing on the morning of the 9th, last seen headed toward the Forth River Bridge from his hotel in Queensferry, Scotland. Everyone wanted to hope for the best, that he had just gone off the grid for a day or two to clear his head, as his family said he’d done a number of times before. But his body was found at a port just off the bridge on the 11th. He was 36. Everyone seems to have that band or musician that they found when they most needed some kind of outside support. For a lot of people I know, it’s something like Jack’s Mannequin or the Mountain Goats. I have a feeling Julien Baker is going to fill this role for a lot of people in the coming years. For me, and for so many others I’ve seen on Twitter and Facebook and various article comment sections, it was Scott and Frightened Rabbit. I still remember when I was first exposed to them. It was 2012, fall of my junior year of undergrad, and the State Hospital EP had just entered the Radio UTD new music rotation. I played it during some of my shows on a whim and was sucked in by the bleak, depressed, alcoholic holiday cheer of “Boxing Night” (which I will still and forever argue is one of Frightened Rabbit’s best songs ever, EP release or no). It was a perfect entry point for me, and gave me some time to get their past music and explore it a bit before I really needed it. A few months later, my first serious relationship blew up like a slow-motion Hindenburg crashing into a nuclear waste dump. It was extremely unpleasant, pretty much entirely my fault, and left me spiraling and stewing in negativity, depression, and self-loathing for months. Frightened Rabbit’s music did a huge amount of work in keeping me going through this period because those emotions were basically Scott Hutchison’s permanent private headspace. Being able to listen to (and occasionally sing/scream along to) music that so perfectly captures where you’re at emotionally can be so therapeutic and cathartic, and it really helped me stay sane. https://open.spotify.com/track/2jmRFhFqpeafhnWluHn0D1?si=0fgngMf9TNOPJ01UVGN2pw “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” always served as a driving force for me to keep going and fight through the awfulness, even though the song may not be particularly about going about things that way (I’m kind of terrible at noticing the meaning of great songs sometimes. Please never ask how long it took me to get what “Predatory Wasp of the Palisades” is about). “The Twist,” still my favorite love song, gave me a beautiful, wry hope that I’d eventually be able to move on to someone new, even if the circumstances that start that relationship aren’t ideal. “Good Arms vs Bad Arms” manages to put perfect words to the bitterness, jealousy, and resigned uncaring that come with seeing your ex move on while you haven’t (one of the best lyrics ever written: “I’m armed with the past, and the will, and a brick/I don’t want you back, but I want to kill him”). “The Modern Leper,” “I Feel Better,” “Nothing Like You” and “The Loneliness and the Scream,” among others, are all hugely cathartic emotional releases of a song that all build to a point where you can just scream along to the words and let it all out. And then there’s “Poke.” “Poke” is the single-most crushing, depressing song I know, because of the straightforward bluntness that it uses to talk about a dying, collapsing relationship. Sometimes you just need to have a song kick you in the emotions until you start crying, and this one is extremely up to the task. These songs and these albums got me through the darkest few months of my life, and they’ve continued to be there for me as a musical shoulder to lean on in grad school as I’ve dealt with more breakups, panic attacks, and occasional crippling bouts of imposter syndrome. https://open.spotify.com/track/0SHMKtdtSUyuGHZEkkMkf4?si=BXIo-1UuT46kyUwGs4j47A And then, after the months of shit and sadness finally started to ease up and life started to turn around, Pedestrian Verse finally came out, and it was a massive emotional, musical release. So many of the best songs on this album are just explosions of sounds and feelings, propulsing out of the emotional muck into a new life that actually feels kind of confident and self-assured and, just possibly, happy. Of course the album still had a few soul-crushers (“Acts of Man” and “Nitrous Gas” are both brutal), but so much of it was a breath of fresh air. “Holy,” in particular, has stuck with me, mostly because the image of Frightened Rabbit performing it live is still seared into my head like no other live song I’ve ever seen. I only ever managed to see them once (April 2013, at Trees in Dallas, on the supporting tour for Pedestrian Verse), but it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. “Holy” has stuck with me because of a combination of the crowd being on fire, the lights on stage being perfect, and Scott just letting loose, almost entirely a being of pure, warm, emotional energy. He knew everyone in the crowd was there because people found catharsis and comfort in his music, and he did everything humanly possible to deliver. On stage, and by all accounts I’ve seen, off-stage, at work, at the pub, anywhere, Scott was one of the kindest people around and simply wanted to help the people around him be happy, whether it was through his acts or through his music. https://open.spotify.com/track/2irFDtyw34II0pdCWIOBaN?si=XB9v0qQrTtGgx-q5u_xzZg After Pedestrian Verse, I kind of fell off with Scott and Frightened Rabbit’s various projects and albums. For some of it, I think it was just me not being in the same headspace anymore so I couldn’t connect to it as much. I never cared for Scott’s solo project, Owl John, because it felt raw and bitter and angry in a way that just wasn’t enjoyable for me to listen to. Painting of a Panic Attack was a great FR album (“Get Out,” “Wish I Was Sober,” and “An Otherwise Disappointing Life” all deserve a rightful place on any Frightened Rabbit best-of list), but it never clicked with me as a whole album the way their middle three did (it’s a little too The National-y to be FR, and a little to FR-y to be The National). mastersystem’s Dance Music has been really interesting in the limited time I've spent with it, providing a much heavier rock version of Frightened Rabbit’s usual sound, but I’m afraid this album is just going to be so tainted by what happened two weeks after its release that it’s going to be difficult to listen to in the future. I know from all the interviews and backstage talk, the past five years had been Scott and the band trying to re-find themselves and figure out who they were and where they wanted to go after the perfect coda that was Pedestrian Verse. It seemed like they had finally started to figure it out and work into that next evolutionary step but now, that’s been cut short and we’ll never get to see that potential “what’s next.” https://open.spotify.com/track/4UjZKgbOBEwb6i6zHupD1B?si=dnppT4r-SZuqNWcWB2-xSw Honestly, this is the end Scott wrote for himself, directly from The Midnight Organ Fight. Ever since the first mention from the police about the Forth River Bridge, I’ve had bits of “Floating in the Forth,” the album’s penultimate song, flitting in and out of my head for days. Like most of their songs, it’s got a crushingly sad core that’s buoyed by enough positive words and sounds that it lets the listener sit and commiserate with how awful everything in life can be but still provide an outlet of light at the end to show that everything isn’t 100% terrible. The song is all about a person standing on the Forth River Bridge contemplating jumping. Most of the song is just the internal debate about whether to do it, and it ends with the emotional and musical release of, “I think I’ll save suicide for another year.” It’s a beautiful song, and it’s a song that’s clearly written by someone who’d had a good bit of experience with these internal conversations. And now, it’s a brutal song to listen to now that we’ve seen the result of deciding against “another year.” In the end, all I can really say here is learn from how Scott lived his life. He was a man plagued by demons (depression, alcoholism, anxiety, etc.) that he wore openly on his sleeve so that he could be an example and an inspiration and an outlet for others. Learn from one of his last tweets: “Be so good to everyone you love. It’s not a given…Please, hug your loved ones.” https://twitter.com/owljohn/status/993971389894979584 Be kind, be good, be supportive, be helpful, be loving. But in the end, don’t do what Scott did. Don’t just ghost and leave everyone worried for days until news of the worst comes out. Someone always cares, someone is always there to talk, and someone is always going to be there to help. Call your family. Call a friend. Call the Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255). Hell, @ me on Twitter and I’d be happy to chat if you need me. Just talk to someone and take the time to think everything through before something can’t be undone. https://open.spotify.com/track/0by3DGqZgiImKVZjbPjvke?si=YOBitKvbSC21leVaLbDr-g This has been a rough few days, so let’s end this on an inspirational note. Here’s my favorite chorus that Scott ever wrote and what seems like a pretty succinct version of his goals and outlook on life, from The Midnight Organ Fight’s “Heads Roll Off”: When my blood stops, someone else's will not When my head rolls off, someone else's will turn You can mark my words, I'll make tiny changes to earth And while I'm alive, I'll make tiny changes to earth Scott Hutchinson November 20, 1981 - May 10, 2018
Trying to constantly fit a musician into a specific genre is a mostly worthless task. It does a huge disservice to the musicians because any single genre they could be lumped into would likely be too broad to actually mean anything or so specific and constricting that any kind of deviation or experimentation would push them right out of the genre. Fortunately for me though, it’s not an entirely worthless exercise. Throwing around highly specific (and typically highly hyphenated) names for music genres tends to be the most useful and fun when it’s either some kind of an academic exercise in what defines a category, or as a useful evocative shorthand that can give a new listener a strong idea of exactly what they’re in for with an album or artist. This brings us to “art” music. “Art-[genre]” has always been a weird genre label for me to work with. The way the term is applied on and by musicians comes with a heavy implication of the snobby “Oh, you won’t get this, it’s ART” mindset. If you say something is art-rock or art-pop, I immediately hear something overly aggressive and weird, frequently pushing the boundaries of music and genre to the point of being unlistenable. It’s a term that’s dripping with an “I’m doing this because I can and I don’t care if anyone enjoys it” mindset (which is fine) and a sense of superiority and elitism toward more “standard” music (which is not fine, for me at least). This brings us to art rap. Art-rap is one of the newest entries to the art-music world, coming about when Open Mike Eagle decided to put a new name to his boundary-pushing musical style. He started the sub-genre as a way to begin challenging conventions in the relatively young super-genre of hip-hop and rap. From there, the music produced under this label has (based on the probably woefully inadequate amount of art rap I’ve listened to) generally focused on what rap can sound like, rather than the overarching “what qualifies as music” question that drives much of art rock boundary pushing. Even though it’s saddled with the “art-“ baggage, art rap is, in my experience, pretty enjoyable to listen to. It’s a good genre with a name that could do with a lot less baggage. This brings us to milo. milo, real name Rory Ferreira, does not seem to care much for being called art rap. It’s an understandable position because getting permanently associated with and pigeon-holed by such a specific and weird genre has to feel incredibly limiting and reductive to an artist. His distaste for the term is kinda unfortunate because art rap really is a good term for what he does (or, at least, what he’s done so far). If you had no idea what an avant-garde take on rap could sound like, throwing on any given milo track would give you a pretty good idea of what kind of stuff is possible. He’s good. Because milo is so good at what he does, I want to break down his music into the components that make it “art.” The Sound “Sound,” to me, is made up of two parts, the music, and the vocals. A lot of milo’s music builds around a jazz-funk base (especially on his newest album, who told you to think??!!?!?!?!), but it frequently blends in some elements from other genres (I’ve heard some indie-rock-esque guitars from time to time, and a hint or two of fellow Wisconsin native Bon Iver) or will stretch the basic instrumental sounds by playing around with the pitch and tone of the instruments. It’s different and interesting, but never really tries to be difficult. milo saves his aggressive experimentation for the vocals. His base delivery is enough to keep you on your toes. He has a standard flow cadence that he starts a lot of songs with, but he’ll vary pace and emphasis constantly, as the content requires. It’s all very deliberate and measured, but the variation still somewhat paradoxically brings a feel of order and system to the music. And then, every couple of songs, milo will shit all over that system by bringing in some out-of-nowhere electronic vocal effects. Sometimes it’s just a single word heavily distorted. Sometimes it’s some very aggressive reverb looping slipped in throughout a song. Sometimes words just seem to drop and disappear in the songs. Sometimes there are some samples really aggressively put on top of the music. milo’s found a lot of tricks to use, and he has no problem using any of them at a moment’s notice as a way to grab your attention back just as it may begin to drift. The Lyrics On almost any given milo track, there are two things that immediately jump out about his lyrics: the incredible poetry of his songs, and the deluge of references that serve as the foundation of his music. His lyrics very rarely fit into a verse-chorus format, and instead just flow freely and tell a story as they need to be told. They’re lyrics that could be written down and read, and still be just as much “art” on their own as they are with music. The stories in the song are real-feeling and relatable, even if the density and type of references can often make them somewhat incomprehensible. And oh, those references. Music, especially rap, being full of references to random things is nothing new. But milo is able to take those references to a new level by the sheer density and breadth to which he uses them. He has enough wrestling and video game name drops in his music to fit in with any nerdcore crew, but he’s equally comfortable talking about Kant and Kierkegaard and any other random philosopher. The majority of milo’s references are, at best, wildly esoteric, and frequently read like citations in an academic paper. But somehow, it works and makes highly enjoyable music. Cutting the academia with wrestling references, and vice-versa, creates a balanced and realistic feel that works way better than either on their own. The “art” of milo’s art-rap is the best kind of art. It’s challenging, but not inaccessible. It’s aggressive, but will never force you away. The creator can enjoy the process of its creation, but the audience can also enjoy consuming it. It’s art as a balancing act, and it’s executed with increasing precision as milo continues making more and more music.
The Now music collections are a weird and unique beast. The collection, running in the US since 1998 and now 65 volumes deep, has consistently worked to transcend genre and deliver a snapshot of the musical zeitgeist in the months before the album. It’s an audacious and laudable goal, and it’s one that lends itself to looking back and analyzing the evolution of pop music in the 21 st century in near-endless quick steps. More importantly, the Now series was my gateway into music. When I was a wee youth, Volumes 1-8 made up pretty much my entire CD collection and helped me realize some very defined musical tastes at the time (Rock=good, soul/R&B=not my thing at the time, Rap=I don’t know how to feel about this as a 3rd grader). Because of Now’s semi-encyclopedic structure and my personal history with the series, I’m going to honor 20 years of Now by reviewing every damn one of these albums, one track at a time. So join me on this journey as we explore the evolution of modern pop, revisit some old classics, and hear some songs for the first time that left the cultural consciousness as soon as they entered (note: I’m probably going to be hearing a lot of these songs for the first time, because I tend to spend long periods hilariously disconnected from said zeitgeist and these first few albums are all nearly 20 years old, so feel free to shame me as needed for not knowing some society-shattering hit). Let’s dive right in for Volume 1, from October 1998 (For reference, all these volumes are playlists on Spotify now, give or take a track or two on each, so feel free to follow along there). 1) Janet Jackson – “Together Again” Like a lot of people in my immediate age group, I don’t actually know Janet Jackson for any of her music. I just know her for the Superbowl 38 halftime trainwreck and the subsequent deeply problematic ruining of her career as a star (as has been discussed plenty with Justin Timberlake’s recent return to the halftime stage). But, I’ve been told that she was an immensely talented artist who made some damn good pop music. This song sure as hell agrees with that assessment. It’s infectious, bubbly, feel-good dance pop with some really inspired musical touches. The harp especially brings a good and unique balance to the otherwise entirely electronic track. It’s very much in the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” vein of music. I would happily dance to this awkwardly in a club full of people. 2) Backstreet Boys – “As Long as You Love Me” Admit it right now. Were you a Backstreet kid or an N*sync kid? When I was listening to these albums, I was firmly Backstreet, but in my more mature years, I’ve shifted to N*sync a bit. They just ended up sticking with me more through the years. No matter which way you lean though, boy band dominance is one of the major through-lines of the first few years of NOW. We’re going to be seeing Backstreet a lot over the first 10ish volumes, and none of the other boybands are here yet, so we’ll save all the in-depth comparing for the coming weeks. This track on its own is one that’s still pretty enjoyable to listen to, even if its musical stylings are immediately identifiable as late-90s/early- 2000s. It’s got that kinda weird Spanish guitar/piano and chimes/dance beat mix that immediately identify a pop/R&B love song from this period. This almost certainly wasn’t the first song to use this sound-style, but it is probably one of the ones that’s held up better throughout the years. 3) Fastball – “The Way” I have absolutely no recollection of this band or this artist at all. Exciting! It’s a solid, enjoyable late-90s one-hit- wonder alt-rock song (you know exactly what this means, and apparently so did NOW, because I count at least 5 other bands that fit this description on this album). This one has the added touch of being built around an extremely Texas-Western guitar riff that’s been fuzzed up. It’s solid enough, but I can understand completely why this track and band has been relegated to the dustbin of history. 4) Harvey Danger – “Flagpole Sitta” Speaking of late-90s one-hit- wonder alt-rock, here’s a song that never faded away into history. This song still gets played all the time on the radio, because it fucking bangs. This song has such a weird, anxious energy driving it that makes it extremely catchy and poignant even 20 years later. I’ve found this song is best listened to in the car, when you can turn it on, turn your brain off, and just rock out and scream along to it for the next 4 minutes. It’s extremely cathartic and energizing and may get you a speeding ticket if you’re not being careful. 5) Spice Girls – “Say You’ll Be There” Oh shit, I didn’t realize this was a Spice Girls song. I didn’t recognize the title, and don’t know who I thought it was by, but that chorus is unmistakable. The Spice Girls are such a weird beast, because around this time they basically ruled the world (Spice World the movie, two huge albums, basically the face of England). But in just a year or two they fizzled their next album, fell off the face of the earth, and somehow still managed to stay hugely culturally relevant for the next forever. I don’t entirely get it, but hell yeah good for them. The music here is about as standard a girl/boy band sound as you can get, but it’s still extremely danceable after all these years. 6) K-Ci & JoJo – “All My Life” I remember this song, and thought it was still an R&B classic that didn’t need a ton said about it. Until I listened to the lyrics again and, uhhh: Girl you are close to me you're like my mother Close to me you're like my father Close to me you're like my sister Close to me you're like my brother Well. The rest of the song might be romantic and mood-setting and everything, but telling your partner that they’re all of your immediate family members is gonna make things get real weird, real quick and is going to be a hella buzzkill. Hailey brothers, you tried, but you tried too hard and just made it awkward. 7) All Saints – “Never Ever” Another one I have absolutely no recollection of the band or the song. All Saints was another British girl group, which means that no matter how successful they were (and it seems like they were pretty successful), they were always going to live in the Spice shadow. This song mostly deserves that positioning. It’s a well-made, sad pop song, but doesn’t do anything particularly unique or interesting for most of its run. However, it glimpse unique greatness with its near- minute long, spoken word/piano/choral ooooo intro that suggests something much darker, weirder, and more interesting lurking under the pop sheen of the rest of the song. 8) Tonic – “If You Could Only See” Ok, I honestly thought this song was by Vertical Horizons, but it was merely one of the handful of late-90s, post-grunge bands that merge into the ideal of Vertical Horizons in my head. Honestly, this song probably deserves that kind of semi-anonymity, because it’s a very good, very listenable rock song that has absolutely no unique identifiers in it to help it stand out from the rest of the very good, very listenable rock that came out in this period. This has to be one of the weirdest hells for musicians, with tons of people knowing your song and absolutely no one knowing it was your song that they know. 9) Hanson –“MMMBop” I did not realize this song had lyrics outside the chorus. That chorus is still eternally annoying, even decades later, but honestly the rest of the song is actually really enjoyable. It’s very Jackson 5 by way of late-90s pop/rock sensibilities. It’s not good enough to make me endure the chorus to ever listen to this specific song again, but it makes me curious to actually hear what the rest of Hanson’s music sounds like. Maybe I’ll go out, grab a six-pack of Mmmhops, and check out the rest of their music some night. 10) Cherry Poppin’ Daddies – “Zoot Suit Riot” I remember Cherry Poppin’ Daddies being a thing, mostly because that extremely questionable band name, but this is absolutely not the sound I had connected with them in my head. This is just straight up ‘30s-style big band swing music. It’s enjoyable and a pleasant surprise, but I do not understand how this was able to be a hit in the ‘90s. The late ‘90s really were a strange time. If only I had been more than 5 at the time to experience it. 11) Imajin ft Keith Murray– “Shorty (You Keep Playin with My Mind)” Hell yeah we finally got some rap (in the form a single verse on another song I don’t remember at all). Honestly, the rap verse doesn’t even fit that well in this song. Most of the song is just light, fluffy, kinda forgettable R&B, and then Keith Murray busts in with a harsh voice and heavy flow that just never feels like it fits in with the song. I can see why this was a hit, because the individual pieces are all solid enough, but it just doesn’t cohere for me today. 12) Brian McKnight – “Anytime” Brian McKnight was one of the smoothest men alive in the late ‘90s. This song made this album despite not even remotely being a hit in the US, but I think it’s easily one of the best songs on this whole compilation. It’s smooth as hell, with a perfect mix of funk guitar, piano, and beats all complementing McKnight’s silky, wistful voice. This is a song that could easily be used for either getting really sad and lonely to or getting real steamy with, and it wouldn’t be weird either way. It’s a rare accomplishment for a song, and I’m glad to have this as a pre-emptive palate cleanser for the next song on the list… 13) Aqua – “Barbie Girl” This. Fucking. Song. It was ear poison the moment it came out, and it has not aged well at all. Every facet of this song is terrible. The singers’ voices are grating in so many different ways. The beat is designed to get stuck in your head in the most irritating way possible while providing no enjoyment. The lyrics are just chock full of questionable gender politics that I don’t really even want to touch. This is bubblegum pop at its absolute worst: overly sweet with no substance, and it will make you feel sick if you consume too much of it (too much, in this case, is about 10 seconds worth). 14) Radiohead – “Karma Police” Well, at least they bookended “Barbie Girl” with the two actual best songs on this compilation. While I’m not as familiar with Radiohead as I probably should be, I do know this song is dope as hell. Since Radiohead probably doesn’t need any more critical acclaim from random white college dudes any more than they’ve already gotten throughout their career, I’ll use this spot for a different note. If you haven’t noticed yet, this NOW volume is surprisingly alt-rock heavy, which won’t be repeated in any following volume. I don’t know if the people putting this together were just feeling super edgy for this particular album, or if they were just tossing stuff around to see what America was really into, or if rock was actually this prominent at the moment and just fell off a ton in popularity in the next few months. Whatever the case may be, this is the most rock’n’roll NOW ever has been and ever will be, so enjoy it while it lasts. 15) Everclear – “I Will Buy You a New Life” For some reason, I just adored Everclear’s tracks on these early NOW volumes. They have such a fun, unique sound to me, mostly based around Art Alexakis’s extremely distinctive voice, even if most of their songs are depressing as hell. This is one of their big songs that wasn’t about Alexakis’s youth and daddy issues, and it’s one of their more restrained songs. Alexakis takes a dreamy, reassuring tone while listing the kinds of just plausible but out of reach things he wants to get for his lover to make her happy. It strikes me as a bittersweet song, because he wants to buy her the world (even if that world is just a new garden, car, and fancy house), but you can tell there’s no way he can follow on that promise, even as grounded as it may seem. Man, Everclear was some good shit, and they should get way more recognition then they do these days. 16) Lenny Kravitz – “Fly Away” Lenny Kravitz has faded away into the music background over the decades, but there was a time where he was a legit rock star on the top of the world. This song and his cover of “American Woman” in particular were just inescapable in the late ‘90s/early 2000s. This song has a lot going on, with the heavy main riff, the funk bass and electronics, and Kravitz’s kinda whiney voice. I know bringing all those elements should be interesting and daring, but somehow it comes off as safe and sort of boring. Maybe it even was daring and innovative when it came out 20 years ago, but at this point it’s just something I would hear in the background in a mall, but with a harder guitar than most of the other stuff playing. 17) Marcy Playground – “Sex & Candy” Much like “Flagpole Sitta,” this is a rock one-hit- wonder that actually sticks with you. There’s no mistaking this beautiful, grimy weirdness for anything else. Somehow Marcy Playground managed to give every part of this song, from the vocals to the guitar and drums, a completely flat, detached affectation that lets the song maintain a simultaneous air of cool and unease for its entire run. This is such an odd, idiosyncratic song (even more so than the Radiohead) to end this album on, and I think I can comfortably say that NOW never includes a song this weird again. Next Time: NOW still tries to find its feet, and one of pop’s biggest names comes roaring onto the scene.
Rating: 4/7 RTs: 2, 3, 4, 5 RIYL: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Van Morrison, late 60s-early 70s Rolling Stones The garage punk heroes in Titus Andronicus have followed up their biggest, most audacious album (2015’s epic A Most Lamentable Tragedy) with something much more focused, but also something completely different from anything they’ve made before. For the most part, this new sound works. The songs are generally engaging and fun to listen to, but a number of the songs can feel a bit slight and overlong at times (a problem that most any non-prog or non-jam band is gonna run into when over half the songs on the album are 7+ minute epics and none of the songs are shorter than 4 minutes). While the album treads new ground for Titus, the sound itself is honestly very well-worn ground. The best comparison I could come up with was Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band (there is a big distinction between solo Springsteen and the E Street Band, and this album at points does as good a job delineating that difference as Bruce himself could). The album has a full big-band sound, complete with a horn section and various voices outside of lead singer Patrick Stickles chiming in on songs. “Real Talk” and “Above the Bodega (Local Business)” channel E Street most purely, with high energy, expansive sounds, occasionally goofy lyrics, and plenty of lyrics about reality and difficulties of life. “Number One (in New York)” hits a similar vibe, but with a much slower, personally contemplative song. “(I’m) Like a Rolling Stone” channels a different Americana hero with a fairly direct cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” (excepting the 3-ish minute digression at the end where Stickles requests that no one forgets any of the actual Rolling Stones, member by member. That part really could have been cut). The only major change to the lyrics is the transition from Dylan’s second-person, somewhat accusatory “you,” to +@’s self-deprecating and confessional “I” throughout the song. It seems like a minor change at first, but it really does change the meaning and tone of the song in an interesting way. “Home Alone” is the hardest rocking track on the album, but it’s more of a hard rock slow burner rather than the chaotic punk the band has put out in the past. Overall, this is a fairly enjoyable album, with frequent fun moments and songs you can lose yourself in. But it’s all in a musical style that’s been done so much that it’s hard to not compare it to superior albums from 30, 40, 50 years ago that do more or less the same thing, but better. If you enjoy the bands this album invites comparisons to, or want to hear a generally fantastic band try something very new, this is worth a listen. If you don’t dig rehashes of the past, or are looking for a more traditional Titus Andronicus album, I’d steer well clear of this one.
Release Date: 1/17/2018 Album: I’ll Be Your Girl (out March 16, 2018) Rating: 5/7 Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting this. The Decemberists have been working on an album for this spring, and I got to hear a few of the potential tracks for this album live last spring. Based on those, I figured this album would be another jaunty, country-folk-esque album in the vein of The King Is Dead. “Severed” is very decidedly not that, nor is it close to anything else that the Decemberists have ever made. This is uncharted musical territory for a band that’s been releasing music for 17 years now, and that’s an exciting sign for where the new album is heading. Before all this talk of uncharted sounds scares off any traditionalist fans of the band (can a band that’s explored so many sounds and styles already even have traditionalist fans?), “Severed” is still, at its core, very much in the mold of previous Decemberists work. There’s Colin Meloy weaving his usual darkly poetic tale, the layers upon layers of instruments, and the usual fantastic backing vocals. The formula is the same, but the ingredients put into that formula are changed drastically here. The most immediately noticeable change is the addition of the bubbly synth beat that drives the entire song, but there’s also a ton of fuzz on the rest of the instruments and a heavy echo on Meloy’s vocals. It comes out sounding like the Decemberists have decided to start making the soundtrack for a new version of Miami Vice, and somehow it works. I’m not entirely sure how an entire album of this kind of sound will play out, or how it will work if they try and mix and match this with songs that approach their more traditional sound, but I’m excited to see how it works out. In any case, a band known for its acoustic guitars, organs, accordions, and other carnival folk-esque instruments deciding to announce their new album with a lone synth starting the song is a bold move, and I think it’s paid off. Check out the music video for the new song below: https://youtu.be/ksTFj6L0mao
Spotify failed me. I finally found some artists that are relatively popular whose best works simply weren’t on Spotify. I was recently in a particularly Americana/Red Dirt mood, so I decided I’d take the time to finally get into Lucinda Williams and Cross Canadian Ragweed. Unfortunately, most of their music, particularly their best and most acclaimed albums, just weren’t available for streaming (note: since this ill-fated music hunt, most of Williams’s catalog has been uploaded to Spotify. Cross Canadian, not so much). These weren’t some up-and-coming, hyper-underground artists who you could still go to Bandcamp or Soundcloud or wherever and still find their music. These are artists who, at some point or another in their careers, were some of the biggest names in their genres, and their music simply wasn’t there. I was sorely disappointed, and to respond I…did nothing? I frowned, shrugged, and moved on to something I knew would be in Spotify’s still near-limitless catalog. It was a decision that actually stunned me once I thought about it, and made me realize the ease and convenience of streaming on Spotify (or any of the other major streaming apps you may choose to use) has completely changed how I find, listen to, and connect with my music. Spotify has managed to create a listening experience that is both incredibly personalized and deeply impersonal. Whatever algorithms they use to provide recommendations are usually spot on, and can direct me to fantastic new and new-to-me music in a heartbeat. The “Discover Weekly” playlists have delivered me hundreds of songs that elicit an immediate “Hell yeah, this is the good stuff” from me and that I bookmark to revisit and explore in more depth later. And then I never, ever listen to 95% of those songs or bands ever again. Even with the bands I truly love, I can barely remember the names of their albums I discovered through streaming, much less the individual song titles. Young Mitchell would be so disappointed in me right now. I used to know every detail about the music I cared about, and prided myself on knowing what every song was that came on the radio at a random restaurant. I was even more of a music nerd than I am now, and I think much of that comes from how I found my music. Now, streaming brings the world of music to your fingertips, whether you knew you wanted it or not. But before Spotify, before Google Play, before Apple Music, before any of that, if you wanted new music you had to know what you were looking for and you had to hunt it down yourself. For the entirety of my music-loving career, I’ve been, to put it generously, a broke-ass student. I’ve had to make my music purchases judiciously, so as a way of test-driving music and seeing what truly belonged in my lofty CD collection, I acquired a whooooole bunch of music in most of the typical less-than-legal ways. In my later high school and early undergrad years, those heady days before Spotify had an unlimited free-to-use option, I was a bit of a torrenting machine. I decided that downloading entire discographies at a time was the easiest way to figure out what bands I really liked (New Pornographers! I enjoyed them so much, I made “All the Old Showstoppers” my ringtone for a while in high school. I’m still mystified as to why I wasn’t immediately recognized as the coolest and hippest kid on campus) and disliked (t turns out that all of U2, outside of their early hits, is just kinda bad. Don’t @ me). Some of the larger and more established artists I wanted had their entire discographies ready to go in a single package to download, but most of the artists I wanted, I had to hunt down one album at a time with their Wikipedia page open in one tab and whatever database I was using to find the music in the other. I always enjoyed the challenge of hunting down that one damn album that never seemed to have a torrent with anyone seeding it, even though those challenges were often fruitless. But even though torrenting an entire discography was a good way for me to familiarize myself with albums and figure out what music I liked, what music other people cared about, and what music was really worth hunting down, it still made a lot of listening a rather impersonal affair. Years after I stopped downloading music en masse, I still have songs come up in my personal collection that I’ve never heard before and don’t know who they’re by (case in point: I just had a fantastic cover of “Shankill Butchers” by Sarah Jarosz come up in my shuffle that I didn’t realize existed, even though I’ve had her music on my computer since 2011 or so). My relationship with music was better here, but it wasn’t at its best by any means. This might be the only time in my life I say this, but, at least in terms of how well I connected to and intimately knew my music, I peaked in middle school. Middle school (and early high school, which is basically just middle school with a slightly better reputation) was a wild time for music consumption for me and my friends. In 2005, right in the heart of my middle school years, the iPod Video and Nano were released, which completely changed the game for us all. Everyone got one for their birthdays or Christmas, and the new dick-measuring contest became a combination of who had the most music, the most unique music, and the dopest overall music collection. Everyone wanted to have a shot at being cool with their music, so, eventually, everyone turned to the same solution: LimeWire (I was personally a FrostWire user, because even then I was an unrepentant hipster apparently, and it seemed like a less virus-filled alternative. This almost certainly wasn’t true, but at least I tried my best to preserve the family desktop’s wellbeing). For those of you who never experienced the glory days of LimeWire, or shoved them deep down your memory hole, allow me to refresh your memory. This beautiful trainwreck of a program was the heir to Napster’s file-sharing throne and was a slow, inconsistent virus minefield that would somehow always end up installing the Ask Jeeves toolbar on your web browser no matter how many times you told it not to. It was a terrible piece of software, but it was exhilarating to us youngbloods because, for the first time, we truly got to experience the power of the internet. Any media we could want was right there at our fingertips. Now, because LimeWire was a terribly made program, music had to be downloaded song-by-song. It was a massive pain in the ass, but it also created a unique way to bond to the music. You had to know exactly what song you wanted if you were going to hunt it down, and then you’d probably have to download multiple versions to try and find one that sounded like it was a passable quality. If you wanted a whole album, you had to have the track listing in front of you so you could piece it together and download it track by track, while hoping every track had even been uploaded by someone in the first place. And even when you could find what you thought you wanted, half the time the artist and track listings were just flat-out wrong. Since my friends and I typically shared our music and were all hunting down the same things, we usually ended up with the same messed-up song info. I still vividly remember one song that we all had wrong for years. It was a popular country song that was on the radio fairly frequently that we all had in our iPods as “BBQ Stain” by Kenny Chesney (album unknown, because of course). It didn’t particularly sound like Chesney, but because that’s the information we all had, it’s what we accepted. After way, way too long, we realized that the song was actually by Tim McGraw and was called “Something Like That,” a former #1 hit and one of the most played songs of the 2000s that the internet decided to mess up for no particular reason. It was an entertainingly revelatory experience for us (the internet LIED to us! What madman would do that!), but it’s also an experience and song that’s stuck with me for over a decade because of LimeWire’s idiocy. LimeWire was an awful, bloated, inefficient way of doing anything that has thankfully been put out to pasture, but it still holds a special place in my heart because of the way it forced me to interact with music on the smallest, most intimate scale possible. Hunting music because it’s something you desperately want to find and have and listen to, rather than it just being presented to you with no effort, isn’t really an option any more, and the loss of that option comes with a loss in connection to the music we listen to. There’s less reason to learn all a band’s info, take in the various track names, or even place any information at all to the song you have playing in the background from a pre-generated streaming playlist. All that knowledge just floats into the breeze now, and leaves the listening experience a less rich place than it was back in middle school.
Frank Turner-Songbook Rating: 6/7 RIYL (for the non-greatest hits): Disc 1- 19; Disc 2- 2, 3, 7, 8 Release Date: 11/23/17 It’s not very often that a greatest hits album comes along that’s worth reviewing or even just talking about. I’d say that’s because greatest hits collections are, frankly, trash that barely qualifies as albums. They’re usually a haphazard collection of singles slapped together from the past few albums/years (or even across a whole career) plus a new, unreleased track or two, with little to no concern for track order, the context for the individual songs, or musical coherence. These are, in essence, a shitty mixtape someone would give a friend to help them see “what this band is all about.” However, good greatest hits albums are possible, and, for some artists, they are so good that they become the definitive album people need to listen to for that artist (Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits and CCR’s Chronicle are two personal favorites and exemplars of doing this very correctly). These albums transcend the inherent difficulties in creating a compilation by turning the thoughtless playlist into an actual album and artistic statement. Track order is given serious importance, instead of just throwing the tracks in chronological order (though that can be effective sometimes) or in some haphazard order. They tend to serve as a capstone to a particular branch of an artist’s career. They bring at least one track of something exciting and new. Most importantly, you should be able to give this greatest hits album to someone who’s never listened to the artist before and once they’re done with it, they should just be able to understand who that artist is and what they are about. Frank Turner’s Songbook does all of this excellently, and then some. He’s said that his most recent album, Positive Songs for Negative People, felt like an appropriate coda to the first stage of his solo career, consisting of twelve years, six albums, and an aggressive punk-folk (but not quite folk-punk) sound. He put Songbook together as a way to tie these albums up and tie them together, and it does a fantastic job of that. The album itself comes in two parts: disc one, which encompasses the actual 18-track greatest hits plus one new track showcasing the new musical direction Turner is working on pursuing, and disc two, which is made up of 10 alternative versions, some acoustic versions, some complete re-recordings, of various songs. Disc one performs perfectly as a stand-alone album if you listened to it without knowing any of Turner’s actual albums. It’s ideologically and musically coherent, and the order of the songs keeps the energy of the album flowing in an enjoyable way. Some of that coherence may come from the album being very heavy on tracks from Turner’s two most recent albums (10 of the 19 tracks are from Positive Songs or Tape Deck Heart, while early albums Sleep Is for the Weak and Poetry of the Deed only get one track each), but this is a reasonable thing to do because Turner’s more recent work is legitimately much better overall than his earliest stuff. To the listener who is familiar with Turner, this is a lineup of songs that are now set mainstays during his never-ending touring (as of tonight, by Turner’s count he’s officially played 2,126 shows since going solo in 2005) and songs that run the spectrum of Turner’s best emotional and topical writing: unending optimism of trying to be a better person in a shit world (“Photosynthesis,” “Get Better,” “The Next Storm”), crushing heartbreak (“Mittens”) and fiery anger (“Plain Sailing Weather”) from relationships gone wrong, faith in the power of music to heal all wounds (“Four Simple Words,” “I Still Believe”), and an unbridled enthusiasm for getting others involved with creating art (those last two again, and “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous”). It’s a wonderful lineup, and will fit any emotional need for the listener, whether you’re feeling good but want a little edge and hype, or if you’re feeling down and want a pick-me-up, or if you’re feeling sad and want someone to commiserate with you. The Songbook Versions of songs included on disc two of this album are a fun addition. This side of the album included 10 alternate and/or acoustic takes on some of Turner’s favorite songs, six of which are included on the main greatest hits and four of which would have been worthy inclusions to the main list. Some of these are pretty straightforward reworks that aim to capture the energy and power of his live sets (“Photosynthesis” is a great example of this), but some of the songs do get true reimaginings that really, really work. “I Am Disappeared” gets a remake into what seems to be Turner’s new direction, with a voice box and synth creating the steady build of the song’s first half instead of an aggressive guitar and pounding bass drum in the original, ultimately giving the song an even dreamier, softer feel that really fits the lyrics. “Josephine” and “Glorious You” are both stripped down and slowed down, but Turner is a fantastic guitar player who is able to make that simplified approach as engaging and complex as the original versions, instead of simplifying the music as well. The new version of “The Way I Tend To Be” is my personal favorite, because it takes a song that’s very positive-sounding, with lots of cheery mandolin and high guitar chords, that’s ultimately a bittersweet look back on learning the meaning of true love from relationships past, strips all the cheer from it, and turns the truly sad subtest permeating the song into the text itself. It’s the same lyrics, but it’s become an almost entirely different song, just by changing what instruments are used and how some syllables are emphasized, that works as well on its own as the original does (Turner’s live, slowed-down version of “Live Fast, Die Old” also does this very well. I think he might just be very good at this whole songwriting and arranging thing). It takes a brave artist to completely rework some of his most successful songs, but the Songbook Versions do that willingly and excellently. The new track is well worth talking about on its own, so let’s end with that. It definitely feels separate from the rest of the album, and has a noticeably new sound to it. The lyrics are a classic Frank Turner love song, but gone are the full-throttle guitars and punk overtones. Instead, the song is almost muted, with a quiet, restrained 80’s sound and measured, relaxed vocals. Hell, it even has a prominently featured synth, which I think is a first for Frank Turner. This is definitely a new direction for his music, but I’m intrigued by this track and am very excited to hear more of what he has cooking in this vein when he releases his next album in 2018.
Julien Baker—Turn Out the Lights 7/7 RT: 2, 3, 5, 7 Release Date: 10/27/17 I’ve been dealing with depression a lot lately. Since probably my sophomore year of undergrad, I’ve dealt with on and off bouts of depression and anxiety. I feel like I’ve been able to handle them pretty well, and the feelings usually pass the relatively soon after they come on for me, but I’ve still been there and I know how low those lows can feel. The past few months have brought on a few more lows than usual as I’ve settled into my first semester as a PhD student in Bloomington. I’ve done the “uproot your life, move across the country, and escalate the academic difficulty” thing a few times now, and that first year or so has always been a bit more emotionally fragile for me, but this year has been especially rough. Rochester was the hardest place for me to leave yet, because I’d developed a real home community there; I’m doing a long-distance relationship, and even though it’s completely worth it, it’s also so draining having to put so much scheduling and effort into even being able to talk with my girlfriend on a regular basis; My mother and my grandmother have both been dealing with cancer, with this being my mom’s third round with cancer. It’s been a whole lot to deal with, and under my usual cheery, chipper smile have been more nights than I’d care to count when I’m having a panic attack at 4AM as I try to fall asleep. I’ve spent most of my life living with depression around me as well. My mom has spent most of my life that I can remember battling with depression. I can think of so many times where some random action or inaction on my part would set off what seemed like a hair-trigger wave of emotions from her that would turn into a confrontation that would almost always leave her in tears and saying she felt worthless and like nobody cared about her and me feeling guilty, bitter, and confused about the whole thing, especially when I was younger. Since I’ve gotten older and realized what depression is and how it works, I’ve done my best to avoid things that will upset her and be more considerate toward her and her requests (as one should try and do for one’s mother), but I’m still occasionally an idiot screw-up, and those explosions still happen from time to time. My girlfriend has just recently come to terms with the fact that she does have pretty bad anxiety and depression, and I’ve been doing the best I can to support her as she gets the help she needs to get everything under some degree of control. We have a healthy, happy relationship, and I do my best to let her know how much I care about her whenever I can, but we’ve still had so many conversations (especially since we’ve been at a distance) that, no matter what I say to try and help, end up with her saying she feels like she’s worthless, or that she’s an anchor dragging me down and I deserve someone better, or that she deserves to be miserable and punished as retribution for some unknown, undefined cosmic misdeed. I’m going into all of this (uncomfortable for me) personal detail to say that I have never experienced an entire album that addresses depression as bluntly and honestly and so closely reflecting my lived experiences with depression as Julien Baker does on Turn Out the Lights. Let’s take a step back from the heavy stuff and breathe for a second. Musically, this album is stunning. Sprained Ankle, Baker’s debut outing, was a masterclass in effective minimalism, but here she opens up her sound quite a bit by adding quite a few more instruments and effects to her sound, expanding it from her basic guitar or piano plus vocals combination. While this expansion and refinement may not be to all of her fans’ taste (that basically describes my relationship with Waxahatchee’s work post-American Weekend), I think the new sound is a welcome addition because it gives Baker additional tools to build, explore, and represent the powerful emotions in her songwriting. Her powerful voice is still her biggest musical asset, partially because she sounds stunning and partially because her voice is so emotive. You can hear the sadness and disaffection that tends to sit at depression’s baseline, but she’s also fantastic at getting across the pleading frustration and anger of having to live like that, of trying to communicate with people when you only feel nothing, of trying to break free of its grasp but not being able to when she escalates her vocals to what is, at times, a musical scream. Her vocals are completely emotionally honest in a way few musicians can manage. Now that we’ve established what depression sounds like musically, let’s dig in to what really makes this album a (almost literally for me) breathtaking masterpiece: the lyrics. If you or someone you’re close to (especially a significant other) has depression, you’re going to immediately recognize the conversations Baker is having in these songs. And I say conversations here because that’s exactly what these songs are. She’s talking with someone, explaining her feelings and condition, in every single one of these songs, whether it’s a lover or God or even just talking with herself. These are the conversations that come to dominate and define life with depression, that happen daily or weekly or monthly or constantly, and I’ve spent a lot of time on both sides of these conversations. “Hurt Less” is the one I identify with most personally, because blatant self-disregard for myself and my wellbeing, followed by a complete breakdown to whoever it is that can be there for me, is how my depression has usually manifested. “Appointments,” “Sour Breath,” and “Happy to Be Here” are all conversations I’ve regularly been on the receiving end of recently. My girlfriend was telling me when she listened to this album that “Turn Out the Lights,” “Shadowboxing,” and “Claws In Your Back” were able to articulate how she’s been feeling trying to deal with depression, and the constant inner turmoil and struggle it causes, in a way she’s constantly trying but unable to do. I think that might be the best way to describe what this album accomplishes: it’s able to describe depression in a clear, understandable, emotionally honest way that can give a voice to those dealing with it and a reference point for those trying to understand it. Even though the lyrics are unmistakably devastating and brutal, many of the songs and the album as a whole actually end up being extremely cathartic and hopeful. A lot of the catharsis comes from Baker’s emotive voice that I mentioned earlier. When her songs build to a crescendo and her voice escalates to that trembling yell, it becomes a point of pure emotional release. For her, it may be frustration and anger, but for the listener it’s a burst piercing through the fog of depression that can let loose whatever emotions need to come out. It’s the musical equivalent of letting out a massive scream, or throwing things around a room, or punching a wall. Having moments of release like that are what usually help me get back in a better emotional place, and Baker’s are masterfully constructed. The album itself ends up being hopeful because every song ends up turning into a message of solidarity. With how clearly Baker is able to express these common feelings, it can really let someone know that they’re not alone in feeling this way, and sometimes realizing that it’s not just you who feels like this, and that you’re not uniquely being tortured by some extremely cruel whim of the universe, but that there are people who have common experiences and can relate to what you’ve gone through and that (however grudgingly you may go to them) resources exist to help you cope and get better can be a massive breakthrough. Don’t get me wrong, this album hits like an emotional sack of bricks, and it will almost assuredly make you cry when you listen to it, just from the sheer power of the emotions involved, but it will leave you feeling a little bit more okay with where your life is at the moment by the time you’re done listening to it. This final combination of musical beauty, emotional honesty and clarity, and hope is what makes this album so uniquely powerful and one of the very rare perfect albums I’ve ever come across.
Margo Price—All American Made 6/7 RT: 2, 7, 12 Release Date: 10/20/17 Margo Price’s first album was good. It was a quality classic Nashville country-style album, with a couple of standout tracks, and at least one outstanding sign of potential greatness (“Hands of Time” is just incredible), but a lot of it was just kind of mediocre country music that can easily get lost in the shuffle. With album #2, Price has built on those flashes of brilliance shown earlier and created a fantastic album that should cement her as a (possibly the) leading woman voice in the contemporary country revival. The first thing that immediately stands out in this album is Price’s songwriting. Her songs are every bit as depressing and hard partying as the genre legends (such as Willie Nelson, who pulls a solid guest spot on “Learning to Lose”) she’s building from, but instead of writing songs about heartache and good-hearted cowboys and more heartache, she’s writing songs about personal depression (“Weakness”) and the crushing isolation of humanity (“Lonely”) and the slow death of the Midwest and the poor, rural workers (like, half the songs on the album). She even decides to bluntly tackle some of the toxic political problems in modern America, in a way that feels very refreshing for modern country music. The two songs that do this most directly (“Pay Gap” and “All American Made”) were the tracks that jumped out at me almost immediately, partially because of the directly political nature of their lyrics and partially because they are two of the more unique sounding tracks on the album. “Pay Gap,” a song entirely about exactly what the title suggests, has a very Tex-Mex mariachi sound that lends a pleasant, relaxing vibe to a song with brutally cutting lines like “Women do work and get treated like slaves since 1776.” “All American Made” is a little more traditional sounding, with most of the song accompanied by just an acoustic guitar, but it makes the unique (for country at least) move of having multiple political speeches layered on each other to serve as an attention-grabbing intro, and which are brought back as the bridge between verses. The song itself is about the loss of innocence towards America a person has as they grow up from a home where one is taught that “All American” is the right and ideal state of something (Price even briefly frames herself as Tom Petty’s American Girl), and then slowly learning the noxious implications of what “American” really is (the striking examples here are the missiles sold in the Iran-Contra scandal and the domination of big business literally killing the small-time workers). It’s a genuinely stunning, mournful song, and is a pretty perfect exclamation point to end the album with. The album isn’t all doom and gloom though. There are a number of fantastic honkytonk romps scattered throughout the album to boost the energy and cheer the mood a bit. “Don’t Say It” is a ripping opener for the album about a shitty boyfriend. “Cocaine Cowboys” is a fun, funky groover about shameless city slickers trying to pose in the country life (as Price says, “they’re all hat”). The song is such a perfect encapsulation of this specific type of terrible person that I want to make it the official theme of Fort Worth, TX now and forever because the Stockyards there are filled with almost nothing but these people. “Wild Women” turns coping with the awful pain of life on the road away from your family by going as hard and wild as possible into an actual party. Price finds a perfect balance for her music on this album, helping it be an intensely serious statement but remaining an easily listenable that you can jam to and not be completely beaten down by. It’s an impressive statement album, and will hopefully launch Price (and her messages) to a new level of stardom.
Destroyer—ken 5/7 RT: 3, 6, 7, 11 Release Date: 10/22/17 I’m mostly familiar with Dan Bejar’s work through the typically wonderful and manic work of the New Pornographers, rather than his solo(ish) work as the head of Destroyer. The Pornographers have had a pretty consistent feel and evolution to their sound over the years, but, after listening to some of Destroyer’s back catalogue to contextualize this album, that musical through line is much harder to find. Bejar apparently really likes to experiment and explore different sounds, whether it’s the string orchestra based Poison Season or the synth-heavy Kaputt or the more traditional guitar rock of Destroyer’s Rubies. ken seems to follow a bit in Kaputt’s footsteps, taking the synth-based sound and expanding it in a much bigger and darker way. Bejar has said this is probably the most goth you’ll ever hear from Destroyer, and that feels like a pretty apt description for the tone of this album (and also makes it a fun companion piece with this year’s Goths from the Mountain Goats). Most of the songs on the album have an incredibly foreboding tone to them, with a wall of sound, frequently driven by a pulsing bass drum and tense synth chords, making some of the darker songs almost claustrophobic to listen to. “A Light Travels Down the Catwalk” has an incredible atmosphere created by this effect, turning a song about the runway into a tense, stressful affair with the constant wall of music giving you no room to breathe or relax until the very end of the song. The album isn’t all doom and gloom though. There are a few rays of musical sunshine that pop through, with tracks like “Cover From the Sun” and “Stay Lost” breaking through and providing a pleasant tonic to prevent the listener from getting completely overwhelmed by the overpowering mood of the heavy standouts on the album. Unfortunately, even though this album is a sonic masterclass in mood and tone, I really can’t see it as one I’ll listen to on a regular basis. I think it’s going to require a very specific mood from me to want to listen to (probably rainy and grumpy), but when that mood hits, this will be amazing to be able to go back and revisit.
What is there to really say about the Old 97’s that hasn’t been said at this point? They’re a well-oiled monster of a live show who have been doing this (as the title of their memoir-song suggests) literally longer than I have been alive. However, even though this has probably been said dozens of times each of the last 25 years, I think it’s almost impossible to overstate how ridiculously good the 97’s are live. At 20+ years in, many bands, especially ones who started as hot and have gone as hard as the 97’s, lose a step or start to tend toward being a nostalgia act, but these guys are still on the loud and rowdy top of their game. Tonight’s show was the second-to-last show on tour supporting Graveyard Whistling, their second album in a row that could be considered one of their best albums ever. The last (and only previous) time I saw them was actually at the album release show for that previous album, Most Messed Up, at an outdoor pavilion in Dallas. It was an incredible, joyous, raucous show that celebrated everything awesome about Dallas and the 97’s, but there’s just something that a concert in front of 1000+ people spread across a giant lawn can’t quite capture about a live show that a small and loud bar really can. The biggest difference between seeing these guys inside instead of outside is holy shit they rock loudly. Some of that might be chalked up to standing beside the giant wall of speakers at the Bluebird, but I think most of it is simply that they still play with a reckless aplomb and energy that any aspiring garage punk band would be jealous of, even though they mostly look like a bunch of middle-aged suburban dads (which, really, they are, minus Rhett Miller’s ageless good looks and New York life these days). They bounced around on stage like men half their age, and for most of the show played their instruments about as hard and as fast as humanly possible (special shout-out here to drummer Phillip Peoples, because good lord that man goes hard when the occasion calls for it). The near-two-hour set list itself was about what one would expect from a band touring a new album and with a back catalogue as extensive as theirs. They played four-ish songs from the new album, including “Good With God,” which had opener Lilly Hiatt (who was quite good in her own set, in a typical Nashville country rock kinda way) standing in for Brandi Carlisle’s duet part, and “Jesus Loves You,” which was accompanied by an entertaining quip about how the song has gotten them into a bit of hot water back home in Texas because it’s pretty much about, in Miller’s words, “a guy getting cockblocked” by Jesus. The rest of the set was filled out with the usual debauched barn-burners (“Timebomb,” “Doreen,” “Nashville,” etc.), a few deeper cuts (including dusting off their first ever single, “Stoned,” and bringing out the potentially-about-this-Bloomington “Bloomington”), and a handful of always-welcome bassist Murray Hammond-fronted songs (including personal favorite “West Texas Teardrops”). It was, in essence, exactly what you’d want from a band with the track record of the Old 97’s, and was about as perfect a way to spend a Monday as one could want (and will probably leave my ear ringing for the next week). If you’re into very loud, energetic country-tinged punk (or punk-tinged country, depending on the song or how you want to look at it), then the next time these guys come anywhere near here is a can’t-miss show. If that’s not quite your thing, you should go anyways, throw back a cheap beer or two (plus potentially a shot or so of whiskey, to get the mood just right), and let the Old 97’s infectious energy and joy for their music make your night/week/year/life better.