12/17/14 1:31pm
12/17/2014 1:31 PM |


A matter of four writers liking lots of different things and many of the same things.


20. Parquet Courts Sunbathing Animal

Parquet Courts are easy to like: Sunbathing Animal tumbles from one haphazard hook to the next, each disguised as some off-the-cuff idea from four dudes who stumbled into the studio after last call. Parquet Courts are also easy to get wrong: Andrew Savage’s speak-sung lyrics tend to drip out like a leaky faucet, copping Malkmus’ couldn’t-give-two-shits delivery, but they’re filtered with befuddled, possible-brilliant meaning about everything from displaced U.S. veterans to anxiety attacks: a reminder that seemingly tossed-together bands shouldn’t always be tossed off. Key Track: “Instant Disassembly”  — Lauren Beck



19. Panda Bear Mr Noah EP

Four songs coming late in the year from master sound manipulator, dreamer, and core Animal Collective member Noah Lennox, as if to say, “I’ve heard your bubbling space disco, Todd Terje; and your swoony electro-pop, Caribou; and your mangled robot intestines, Aphex Twin… And I raise you 300 earworms.” Actions speak louder than words. Key Track: “Mr Noah”  — LB



18. BRONCHO Just Enough Hip to Be Woman

While the plentiful hooks on Just Enough Hip to Be Woman are an obvious entry point, its 30-some minutes cross deceivingly vast territory, taking the sneery punk of BRONCHO’s debut and moving it across moody psych dirges, 80s new wave, and whatever springs to mind when you imagine Julian Casablancas playing slobcore. The Okie trio’s natural ease challenges anything that could bum them out (lyrical testimony: “If you try to bum me out—it’s on”), while also making them sound like they’re already three-fourths of the way there. The so-called millennial dilemma of wanting nothing to do and dealing with the depression of doing nothing, now has a proper soundtrack. Key Track: “Class Historian”  — LB



17. Container Adhesive EP

One pronounced trend this year has been noise, that rather alienating experimental sound that eschews traditional song structure and shake appeal. Predictably, fashion-noise followed: a less abrasive, more restrained approach. The glitchy, static, panic-inducing means are the same, but the product is something much more approachable and adaptable outside of an abandoned warehouse. Container’s EP is a perfect example of dark electronic noise that retains its characteristic nastiness, but with a techno edge that makes it party material. Key Track: “Glaze”  — Nicole Disser



16. Allo Darlin’ We Come From the Same Place

On the title track of Allo Darlin’s third release, singer Elizabeth Morris sings, “I’m just trying to make it through another Tuesday,” sounding tender but giving little indication of defeat. Earlier in the album, she notes what a particular pair of lips tastes like when kissing (“Juicy Fruit,” in this case), which isn’t the first time the metaphor has popped up in one of their albums. Then, a few measures later: “Nothing feels the way it did before, and I’m grateful for that.” No album this year better captures everyday trials and victories—and the exhilaration of the rare someone throwing them completely off track. Key Track: “We Come From the Same Place”  — LB



15. A Sunny Day in Glasgow Sea When Absent

The most direct record yet by the most original and most underrated indie-pop group of the last decade. Bandleader Ben Daniels’ attempts to connect are still kinda cryptic, built from weird repetitions of language, ungainly swells of sound. But he’s now got better mastery of shape and density, studying uncommon pop geometry at a post-graduate level. Key Track: “Oh, I’m a Wrecker (What to Say to Crazy People)”  — Jeff Klingman 



14.Tony Molina Dissed and Dismissed

No one ever has enough time. Listening to the 12-track, 12-minute cassette from Bay Area hardcore vet Tony Molina, reissued this year via Slumberland, is the rare occurrence of barely needing any. If Weezer’s Blue Album was the more emo one of their early catalog, and Rivers shorthanded feelings of anxiety and despair by dissolving slow builds into finales, we’d have a close approximation of Molina’s writing: power chords, mini narrative arcs, and ideas that play with just how instantly emotion can be conveyed. Dissed and Dismissed works smarter, not harder. Key Track: “Don’t Come Back”  — LB


12/09/14 2:00pm
12/09/2014 2:00 PM |


Welcome to our weekly installment of the ten best shows around town. And boy is it a good week for music. If you’re already facing imminent meltdown due to the fact that X-mas music is EVERYWHERE, yet again (something you try to forget every single year), put your Scrooge rage on ice, because nearly all of our picks for this week embody the antithesis of holiday spirit. Eat it up while you still can kids.


12/03/14 5:24pm
12/03/2014 5:24 PM |


Yeah, we know it’s winter out. But pull yourself together, it’s only December. For the love of God, ditch the onesie and strap on your boots (not the rain galoshes, please don’t embarrass yourself again, we know you have other weather-proof options) because we’ve got a great lineup of ten shows happening this week worth going out in public for, provided of course that you “like” music.


12/03/14 4:05am


It seems long ago that touches of house or disco in indie-pop could be a thing of great novelty, or a possible cause for alarm. But after a decade of smudged genre lines, of the synthesizer continuously gaining on the guitar, the briefly dominant sound of New York City’s DFA Records has returned to the margins. Aside from a couple precocious singles by teenaged Shamir, the best current version is being made by the same people who were making it then. DFA OGs The Juan MacLean proved the formula can still work with their 2014 In a Dream.

New Build, a Hot Chip side group formed by all-world guitar player Al Doyle and electronic percussionist Felix Martin, keep doing it too. But while they drew fine reviews for 2012’s Yesterday Was Lived and Lost, its follow-up, Pour It On, yields diminished results. Historically, this stuff has peaked behind singers with well-established personae—James Murphy’s over-it scene boss, Nancy Whang’s coolly detached diva, or the suave nerd stylings of Hot Chip chum Alexis Taylor. There’s a middle stretch of Pour It On, from “Your Arrival” to “Luminous Freedom,” where singing is made completely irrelevant by the conviction of the grooves, the body-rippling heavy butter of expensive synth tones. Doyle’s vocals, thin and indistinct, are a problem throughout.

Their home-country rag, NME, brutally dismissed the album as “whingey and middle-aged.” Coming from a publication who slotted Sun Kil Moon’s Benji among their best records of 2014, that’s a bit rich. But the description feels unfair and, at the same time, uncomfortably on point. Take the leaden “Weightless,” which details the stresses of raising kids in the midst of a separation. That’s a topic that’s tough to boogie to. Dance-pop groups age with varying degrees of grace. Caribou’s much better Our Love, for example, went deep but oblique. “Adult dance music” has never really been a thing, though, unless you’re talking about Motown standards played at a niece’s wedding.

There’s at least one young band making the ol’ dance-punk hybrid seem somewhat lively, and they happen to be opening for New Build at Rough Trade early this month. As heard on their new EP, I’m So Inspired, Brooklyn’s Future Punx have the convergence of sequenced beats, disco guitar licks, and post-punk bass seeming, if not new, then newly appealing. In press releases the band calls their particular mix “post-wave,” a knowingly empty genre tag of prefix and suffix alone. Their synths sound comparatively cheap, but the soothsaying zeal of their delivery goes a long way. There are hints of the hip 70s throughout—Orange Juice, Talking Heads, Suicide, Devo. The band’s credibility as futurists leans on the tendency of influences unheard in a while to come back around. Still, in a scene plagued by shitty hardcore and sketchy alt-R&B, the band’s in-pocket tightness is refreshing.

The revival isn’t setting the city ablaze just yet, though. Future Punx’s headlining set was maybe the worst attended of Death by Audio’s farewell week. A significant chunk of the crowd peeled out of the sainted dive after Washington, D.C. band Priests’ high-energy punk-of-the-present wound down. But those who stayed were moved to sway. New Build and Future Punx play Rough Trade NYC on December 4 with Orange Cassettes; tickets are $17 advance, $20 day of.


12/03/14 4:00am



Most good punk bands assault listeners with both their words and their music, but it’s instructive to note which punch they try to hit first. For a group like Toronto’s METZ, pure, sound is pretty much the point. Alex Edkins ripped-throat screaming isn’t completely engulfed by his band’s extra-loud feedback ringing into space, but it’s clear that they made a conscious choice to prioritize the overall sound over any individual lyric. Their anger is deeply felt rather than deliberately articulated. Then there’s Single Mothers, based just a slushy two-hour drive away in London, Ontario, always leading with their verbal jabs.

Single Mothers’ debut, Negative Qualities, is mixed to let you hear the full range of singer Drew Thompson’s pissed-off utterances. With every track, he makes a fine show of discontent, indiscriminately spraying shit-talk as he spins. How much you appreciate the gesture will likely determine your feeling towards the band. As “Marbles” takes a self-righteous flamethrower to literary pretensions, declaring war on long-winded thesis regurgitations at the local bar, it seems he only wants the quiet so he can fill it himself. But the double standard doesn’t necessarily imply delusion. “I’m a hypocrite, and I’m OK with it, and I’m so self-aware that it’s crippling” he’ll go on to repeat. (As blasts against higher education go, it’s at least more credible than Jaden Smith’s.) “Patricide” lashes out at the almighty herself, with Thomson bleating, “I need God about as much as she needs me,” like a mall-punk newly convinced of his lack
of conviction.

While the album’s full-throttle approach does suggest an obvious hardcore influence, the degree to which Single Mothers are a traditional hardcore band has been slightly overstated. They’re actually better when dabbling with hooky alt-rock. The bubble-grunge crunch of “Half-Lit” sets off Thomson’s drug-sick poetic streak, “That night I fell into the pharmacy, I thought I was in a lucid dream…” “Feel Shame” slows down a little, aiming for a Nirvana-style sarcastic spleen-vent but landing short, somewhere just past early-00s blip The Vines. It’s funnier and much more articulate than those Aussie lunks were. (Sonically, the comparison ins’t as much of a diss as you might think.) Basic prettiness is never their primary concern, but album closer “Money,” carries an offhand, wheezy melody anyway.

Ultimately, the record is more like a sweaty basement show than a headphones experience that carefully unwinds. There’s not much differentiation from song to song, except the fleeting target of Thomson’s pique. But it’s only 26 minutes long and on full blast from the start. Like a treadmill sprint, it leaves you exhausted but equally exhilarated by the time it sputters out. While that might give Negative Qualities a limited shelf life, it bodes well for a single night spent with Single Mothers.

Single Mothers play Baby’s All Right with Show Me the Body and Basic Bitches on December 5; tickets are $10 advance, $12 day of.

11/21/14 11:18pm
11/21/2014 11:18 PM |

Years in the spotlight have not revealed Ariel Pink to be a secretly normal guy. In the last half decade, as the former home-recorder has morphed into an indie rock celebrity, he’s seemed incapable of speaking in a way that doesn’t self-sabotage. Every 2014 interview with Pink has gone roughly the same way. He’ll say something offensive but wacky, about the Westboro Baptist Church or Rwandan genocide, say, that’s hard to buy as a firmly held belief. When challenged, he’ll double down then deflate, lashing out with just a hint of deep human sadness. “I wish I didn’t get all this attention, have to do interviews,” he told The Guardian. “I don’t want to be known. I’d like to get by without making a fool of myself, running my mouth all the time. It’s not helping me.”

It’s still easy to grasp the once-romantic ideal of Ariel Pink, the one that first captivated Animal Collective, who listened to his demos in their tour van. He’s the shut-in savant, a true outsider allowed to be a paradoxical retro-music original because he lacks a filter for ideas a more conventional mind might consider too extreme, tasteless, or stupid to carry on to completion. When finally dragged from his basement into the light, the underside of that fictional character was probably never going to be pretty. What were the chances of engaging a gnome genius only to discover that his true personality is 100 percent well-adjusted and in tune with the shifting demands of public life?

For some, Pink’s recent wrangling with women has been a troll too far. It started with a weirdly uncomfortable anecdote about being “maced by a feminist,” and extended to an unsolicited dish session about Interscope execs asking him to help on a new Madonna album, necessitated by what he saw as the long steady slide of the icon’s career. He’ll refer to Grimes as the female version of him, yet also “stupid and retarded” in the same breath. He’s been so far unable to seem repentant about any of this. “Everybody’s a victim, except for small, white, nice guys who just want to make their moms proud and touch some boobies,” he told the New Yorker of all places.

The page-view benefit for publications headlining his wildest utterances is obvious. The end game for those repelled, yet still hate-clicking, is less clear. Deciding with mathematical certainty which parts of Pink’s persona are real, and which are a put-on? Sleuthing out how he interacts in his personal life, and to what degree it matches up with the babble he gives interviewers? What’s gained by knowing? Permission granted to dismiss his work entirely? A final rendered judgment that forces Ariel Pink out of our culture if he won’t shut up? It’s a game no one seems to be winning.

So clearly, Pink’s new record, pom pom, comes with a full cart of baggage. It’s his third record of studio-recorded material for legendary British label 4AD, and the first to bill him as a solo act without his band, Haunted Graffiti. Like its predecessors it’s a confusing jumble of indelible pop melody, juvenile humor, deep melancholy, and unfathomable decision making. Both of Pink’s “mainstream” records were much stranger than smooth singles suggested. You could sway to “Round and Round” without thinking too hard about “Menopause Man,” feel heartsick during his Elvis Costello-esque “Mature Themes” yet gloss over “Symphony of the Nymph”’s concentrated sleaze. Though similar to both, pom pom is the record where the distinction between Ariel Pink’s best material and his most bizarre is hardest to parse, where the questionable tangents of his old CD-Rs are executed to exaction and fleeting retro-pop comfort is often denied. More than ever, a listener’s forced to grapple with the actual worth of cotton-candy-puke-pink junk pop rather than the novelty of its existence.

Pink’s ability to make heinously catchy music is at this point beyond question. Again and again, pom pomprovides near-constant hooks as hard to scrub from your brain as the “Too Many Cooks“ theme. Deranged opener “Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade” melds a 70s kid-show cereal-rush to non sequitur cocaine references and general nonsense. (It sounds like a Kim Fowley fever dream, because Pink actually went to the sick bed of the abusive Runaways’ svengali to obtain its outline.) “Not Enough Violence” is a carefully controlled stadium-goth jam that makes a post-Pink post-punk like John Maus seem like an extra pale imitator. Gentler tracks “Put Your Number in My Phone” and “Picture Me Gone” treat device-mediated modern relationships with alternating hopefulness and sadness. This stuff is especially hard to objectively dislike. If Pink could fake sweetness this well in an interview, he’d likely be coasting easily. That he can’t flip that switch suggests he might just mean all of it.

That realization leads single “Black Ballerina” to cause extra-uneasy feelings. Taken seriously, the song both objectifies women and acknowledges a visceral fear of them. But it’s essentially sketch comedy set to a steady groove. Is that ironic distance just a half-assed cover-up of deeply held misogynist feelings? Does a song about a cartoon sailor taking his grandson to a strip club demand a straight-faced political reading? And if so, don’t you have to take the psychotic commercial jingle “Jell-O” just as seriously? What creeping rot is painted over in shades of quivering neon green?! Thus, the sincerity versus insincerity struggle that’s always been central to engaging with Pink’s work reaches its final impasse. As Pink put it in another quickly disintegrating interview, “It’s not illegal to be an asshole.”

But accusing Pink of rank cynicism seems like a stretch. How could anyone so painstakingly reproduce entire genres while holding deep disapproval towards them, releasing years of work with a huckster’s “these rubes’ll swallow anything!” glee? Saturday morning cartoon themes and morally dubious sex funk are equally real to him. He executes them seriously, while resisting the need to actually make them over-serious. A juvenile worldview can still be honestly reached.

A quizzical collaboration between Pink and Harlem rapper Azealia Banks reveals those two as unlikely friends and oddly obvious kindred spirits. The chirpy beach-blanket gonzo of “Nude Beach A-Go-Go” is far more jarring in the running order of the her debut Broke With Expensive Taste than it is on pom pom. It’s a blast from the past that breaks up her sound’s future shock, and just another fading board game cover on Pink’s dusty shelf. Being forced to think about the two of them in context is pretty interesting, though. Both are natural talents possessed by a pathological refusal to let their work speak for itself. Banks’ harmful pre-album narrative was that she was too busy talking shit to ever get shit done. Finally releasing her album solves that, more or less. The tragedy of Ariel Pink is that he may never write a hook strong enough to finally let him off the hook of being Ariel Pink

07/30/14 4:00am
07/30/2014 4:00 AM |

They Want My Soul

Even after twenty years on the scene, Spoon remain subtly confusing. They’re a band that’s easy to underestimate, if only because they’re so consistent and put together. But then think of the perilously thin tightrope Spoon so nimbly walk, and their refusal to stick with rock dude aloofness, instead busting out a half-dozen big hooks per album. Spoon were minimal in the mid-00s moment when over-orchestration sapped indie rock’s pulse, and then its members were meticulous studio professionals amid the chill-waves of half-assed lo-fi a few years later. Spoon were peppy enough to fit into dance punk playlists in ’04, yet Britt Daniel’s got enough soul to slide in with R&B-indebted stuff in ’14. Despite that killer pop sense, the band have never chased trends to the point of pandering, so the music doesn’t grow dated in retrospect. There’s no greater narrative to this kind of career arc except that of a good band keeping it together, and getting really goddamn good. Spoon is now probably the best rock band in the world, having arrived at that title in a super unassuming manner. The Goldilocks zone Spoon inhabit is a minor miracle of “just-right.”

It’s tempting to say that Spoon would have been bigger in an earlier music marketplace. Just imagine all its best stuff on one ’90s CD, like the then-ubiquitous Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits. Pumping from every suburban Discman and car stereo, it would have functioned as a gateway drug and de facto masterpiece. But really, Spoon have had no problem worming into its own era’s culture. Spoon’s best songs—hooky, groovy, tasteful—always contain a few super-choice seconds, ideas summed up in concentrated pop crystals. As such, Spoon have been ideal for music supervisors in film, TV, and advertising. “The Way We Get By,” “The Underdog,” and “I Turn My Camera On” bypassed the radio entirely on their way to becoming indelible, lucrative hits. Spoon may never headline Madison Square Garden, but they’re hardly stranded in obscurity.

Critics never turned on Spoon fully, but the band’s 2010 record, Transference, was a rare leftward jag on an otherwise ascendent diagonal. (It still managed to be the band’s biggest chart success.) It’s not a bad album at all, just one where the usual clean lines are smudged and direct pleasures suffer shaggy overgrowth. The trio of advance singles from Spoon’s latest, They Want My Soul, snap straight back to classic. The big open stomp of “The Rent I Pay,” the fizzy coos of “Do You,”and the understated strut of “Inside Out” slot easily next to their career best. Spoon didn’t really need a bold comeback, but made one anyway.

Though apparent in each album, Spoon’s aggregate greatness still sort of snuck up on us. Is there any young band out there now putting together a similarly solid resume on the sly? Not really. Though their studio sheen is comparable, Vampire Weekend were instant indie hearthrobs from the start. (It’s been a long time since “Oxford Comma” drew direct Spoon comparisons.) Dum Dum Girls get ever better at concise longing, but every phase seems more retro than classic. The reliability of a band like Real Estate comes at the expense of electricity. Thee Oh Sees crackle and snap in the absence of pop.

It’s lucky then that Spoon, rested and refocused, sound like they could do this forever.

07/16/14 4:00am
07/16/2014 4:00 AM |

World Peace is none of your business

If you used the former Smiths’ singer’s songs to gauge his mood, you’d assume every year was a bad year for Morrissey, but 2014 has really been a bad year for Morrissey. The World Grouchiness Icon canceled his U.S. tour due to severe illness; his proxies launched a weird public spat with longtime opener Kristeen Young, blaming her for passing along a cold she denied having. Wounded Facebook postings, and recriminations over their subsequent likes, ensued. World Peace Is None of Your Business, the album he was to tour, doesn’t turn things around. His 10th solo album is a wildly uneven thing, suggesting the line between his good and bad material to be wafer thin and, like storm clouds on the horizon, well beyond the influence of mere mortals.

There is noticeable effort on the part of the record’s performers to distinguish it from the mid-tempo, large-theater-sized rock of his more successful post-2000 releases. The palette is eclectic and continental, thick with castanets and flamenco guitars. Veteran alt-rock producer Joe Chiccarelli brings a digital crispness that’s big but sort of canned-cheesy, sprinkled with muted laser noises and handclaps that couldn’t have come from human hands. In service to a persona immutable as any in pop music, bursts of atypical weirdness should be a virtue. And yet, setting a song like “Staircase at the University” amid a familiar guitar jangle is the very thing that saves it from utter ridiculousness. Its sweep is so natural that the melodramatic details of a female student committing suicide over grade pressure seem more credible. (Her dick father, maybe, but why exactly is the girl’s boyfriend cruelly humiliating her over getting Bs on her report card? Is this a Lars von Trier movie?) Over bare Spanish guitar, it’s easier to notice Morrissey’s bitter worldview forcing his character studies. When in highest wit, his arch sourness can be good camp fun. With less elegant writing, it’s exhausting, like he couldn’t bring himself to talk to other people for years but assumes they must be miserable.

At 55, Morrissey’s singing voice is remarkably sturdy, still the same salty ham baritone from his 80s records, creaking barely if at all. The sound of it delivering an absurd line like, “I was sent here by a three-foot halfwit in a wig” with spite instead of a snicker can still spur amused disbelief. It’s formidable even when cartoonish—declaring the futility of world democracy, wincing at children, or celebrating the death of a bullfighter. Force of personality can’t save the lamer bits, though. “Kick the Bride Down the Aisle” is particularly bad, portraying a lazy, gold-digging woman eager to stuff herself with bonbons as soon as the thrown rice settles, as if it’s from a different era entirely.

“Oboe Concerto,” the last and best song here, is redemptive. It’s grand but understated, for once giving Morrissey more room to vamp than he takes. “The older generation has tried, sighed and died, which pushes me to their place in the queue,” he sings over a slow, tasteful build, less morose than what’s preceded it somehow, against all reason.

06/18/14 4:00am
06/18/2014 4:00 AM |

A Sunny Day in Glasgow Sea When Absent

Silly as it now seems, mp3 blogs once seemed like the last great hope for rock’s meritocratic future. But then the music delivery format quickly became obsolete the way music formats always do, replaced by streaming services, suggestion algorithms, and humbly posted YouTube clips. Did it matter at all? In a recent essay dismissing the mid-00s sound blogs once championed, Grantland critic Steven Hyden used hype victims like Voxtrot and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to paint the period as an ultimately meaningless footnote. Though his take feels kind of deserved, it ignores the more seldom clicked-on stuff too weird to to have its value inflated, however briefly, by soft consensus. A Sunny Day in Glasgow didn’t become one of the bands that defined indie rock’s blog era, but as one of the most original rock groups of the last decade, they probably should have.

Since 2006 the band’s lineup has constantly shifted around songwriter Ben Daniels, who started the project in Philadelphia and has been its only constant since moving to Australia in 2009. Band members have been mostly unable to be in the same room together, let alone tour the summer festival circuit. Daniels has his own distinct idea of how music should, or could sound, much more so than most musicians who draw the ill-defined “dream-pop” label. His songs flirt with the shoegazer’s impulse to pair noise and melody but more often use counterintuitive structural twists over blankets of pedal fuzz to broadcast their gentle shyness. Post-punk rhythms entered their mix, yet stayed weirdly distant within it. They occasionally seem to be under water, with New Wave blaring from a speaker down in the deep end, the whole affair seeking refuge from boom box beats at a backyard BBQ.  Their sound so far has been as gloriously difficult to describe as the previous sentence suggests.

Sea When Absent is their fourth record and their first in four years. It was partially funded by Kickstarter, and it was produced by Jeff Zeigler, who worked on the most recent The War on Drugs LP. It’s a bold pop move for a band that’s so far built its identity on avoiding anything that could be described as such. Their sound now centers around singer Jen Goma, heard elsewhere this year as a new member in Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Her singing has an R&B influenced proficiency that’s more versatile than the mysterious coos, courtesy of Daniels’s sisters, used in earlier songs. “In Love With Useless (The Timeless Geometry in the Tradition of Passing)” comes on stronger than the band ever has; it doesn’t just suggest the sweep of a big melody by presenting a ghost version of one, but it finds different ways to confuse the ear instead. Goma’s voice clips with digital distortion at its strongest point, like a built-in self-destruct mechanism keeping if from becoming too direct. “Crushin’ ” sounds atypically sweet and relaxed, until a surprise guitar breakdown turns its back end chaotic. Unexpected flourishes remain their songs’ best feature. The material is uniformly strong, less apt to veer into ambient digression than in the past. You can make out the details better. Crucially though, the upped slickness doesn’t turn them bland. Daniels still has a peculiar ability to make it seem like your high-end headphones are deeply fucked up. In the rock landscape that blogs utterly failed to save, that kind of uniqueness is still desperately needed.


05/21/14 4:00am
05/21/2014 4:00 AM |

On Swans’ To Be Kind

As each generation of musicians ages, our idea of what decades-long careers can look like expands with the sample size. The most common fate for graying punks and art-rockers has been a gradual mellowing. Micheal Gira of Swans starting following that path. He spent the 80s making brutal noise music, and most of the 00s in an Americana phase. With his Angels of Light project, Gira strode through the freak-folk scene like a retired gun-fighter, spurs jangling in a sea of sandals. By the end of it, you felt him growing feral. He’d outgrown growing up.

The ATM that is the endless festival circuit has allowed many noisy bands to exist forever as a diminished version of themselves at their peak power. It’s a happy ending, until it starts to turn sad. With lots of respect but no defining hits, Swans were the rare act able to find new energy once they reformed. The Seer, from 2012, was a heavy and intimidating work: welcoming in bits, irrefutable in aggregate. Of all possible late-career moves, providing a logical starting point for new listeners three decades in is maybe the rarest.

Swans’ follow-up, To Be Kind, laughs at the thought of making a two-hour, career-defining masterwork just to wind down again. It’s as massive as The Seer—and as uninterested in waning attention spans. Its long songs repeatedly build to ecstatic intensity, hypnotically bashing through droning that layers the sacred on top of the profane. (Literally, on “She Loves Us” he screams “YOUR NAME IS FUCK! FUCK!” over a chorus of hallelujahs). Gira seems to have structured his career the same way he currently shapes a song, or an album, or Swans’ punishing live show: overwhelm the listeners at length; use breath-catching lulls to ready another roar. To Be Kind suggests a late-career period could be an extended plateau of epic-ness stretching forward to the sun, its end still somewhere out of sight.

An insular, uncompromised vision is always admirable, even when the result is unlistenable. (Try a recent Scott Walker album, why dontcha?) But Swans are kept vibrant by collaboration. Karen O cooed on The Seer; Annie Clark’s pretty, egoless backing vocals grace To Be Kind. Producer John Congleton is on the hottest streak in rock right now, working on formidable new records by St. Vincent, Angel Olsen, and Cloud Nothings, all before June. As engineer and mixer, he captures every ugly sound with stark clarity. To call Swans’ current music “terrifying,” as some have, is to exaggerate. Songs build to rousing climaxes, sweetness creeps into the pitch black, and moments of real pleasure emerge. It can be brutal, but it’s not sadistic. Gira is at least considering ears other than his own. 

Discussing his songs with Pitchfork recently, Gira said, “None of them could be specifically tied to autobiographical experience, because that’s the height of indulgence in my view.” His view of indulgences, which are necessary and which are unforgivable, puts Gira in sharp contrast to aging songwriters like Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozalek, who drew great praise earlier this year for gravely speak-singing his autobiography on Benji. Dirges spreading out over 30 plus minutes? Fuck yeah! Raw diary entries? Fuck off! Rather than settling down to reckon with the life he’s lived, he just keeps on living.