06/07/11 4:00am

Russ Marshalek
Get weird and get dark at the showcase for ridiculously flawless label Merok Records. Teengirl Fantasy, Blondes and Gatekeeper will all make the soundtrack a little bent, and if that’s not enough, watch the fuck out for DJ Venus X, of the notorious, intense Ghe20 Gothik crew.

Jamie Frey
The Brooklyn What
The band I’m looking forward to most at the festival would be The Men, performing at the Sacred Bones showcase at Public Assembly. I just heard their new album Leave Home and it is a phenomenal record, juggling punk rock and experimental music in a chaotic, envelope-pushing tour de force. Imagine Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Black Sabbath and My Bloody Valentine all fighting for space in one band’s brain.

Colin Ilgen
Newtown Radio
A Saturday night show not to miss is the Merok Records showcase at 285 Kent. Teengirl Fantasy, Blondes, Gatekeeper—this might be the best trio of performers to showcase at Northside this year. Expect a high energy crowd, cool ambient sounds, and fogged-out projections.

Brian Sendrowitz
Beat Radio
I’m excited to check out the Father/Daughter Records & StereoactiveNYC show at Spike Hill on Sunday. Father/Daughter is a really excellent boutique indie label that put out some great stuff over this past year. I’m looking forward to seeing how tooth ache and Holy Spirits pull off their sound for the live show.

Nick Sylvester
Mr. Dream
Don’t miss Yvette. They’re a noise-rock duo who remind me of This Heat and Sightings, but there’s something mystical about them in concert too—halfway between MMA and a magic show. They play Friday at Bruar Falls, at Kevin Pedersen’s thing. Sunday night, check out Midnight Magic at Music Hall. They’re a full-on disco band from the ashes of Hercules and Love Affair, and their song “Beam Me Up” was a 2010 favorite.

Lio Kanine
Kanine Records
I’m most excited about the Hardly Art showcase at Union Pool. I love the label, and I love the bands. Especially excited to see Colleen Green as her 7” won’t leave my turntable. She writes super rad, colorful, and catchy pop tunes. And its been a long time since I’ve seen Woven Bones, so I’m excited to hear what Andy has got up his sleeve with some new tunes.

Judy Berman
If you’re sweaty and stoned (and if you’re doing Northside right, you will be), then few diversions will be as satisfying as Dom’s goofy garage pop. (Idolator Presents… at Brooklyn Bowl).

Bryan Vaughan
Paper Garden Records
The most exciting shows (other than ours of course) at Northside this year, I think, will be the Kanine showcase, Battering Room showcase, Cantora, Luaka Bop & Popgun, Ground Control, Brooklyn What, NYC Taper & Pop Tarts Suck Toasted, and Father/Daughter Records & StereoactiveNYC Present. It’s great to see a solid combination within these showcases of more well-established bands alongside some of the most prominent and deserving DIY Brooklyn bands.
Many of these showcase presenters are putting acts on their bills who aren’t necessarily part of their company as well, which is great to see as the more the music industry shifts, the more crucial it is that companies and bands are collaborative and supportive of one another instead of competitive. This is something we strongly support within Paper Garden Records.

Brandon Stosuy
As far as the WIERD Records/No Fun/Bunker showcase… the new Laurel Halo EP and Kindest Lines album are both really pretty (in this lush and dark, but bright way), and I’m curious to see how they translate live. That, and it’s always fun to see what Carlos Giffoni decides to blow up.
Magik Markers’ Elisa Ambrogio is one of the most charismatic guitarists/vocalists/performers/interview subjects (“Who wants beauty when you and me can make the ugly?”) you’ll come across. I’ve seen a few mesmerizing (one bloody) Magik Markers sets. If they were playing in Detroit and got pelted with bottles, they wouldn’t flee like Odd Future; they’d find a way to incorporate the broken glass into the chaos. Truly inspiring, real-deal noise-rock.
Mt. Eerie’s Phil Elverum is just as charismatic, but in a gentler way. I like that no matter how many times you see him perform—whether as Microphones in the old days, or Mt. Eerie now—he shifts his sound in ambitious, unexpected, but still purely “Phil E.” ways. A couple of years ago I put on a Halloween show with Mt. Eerie, Liturgy, and Malkuth at Market Hotel. Elverum was playing songs from his black metal-influenced record, Wind’s Poem. He played faster and more ferociously than I’d ever seen, tore into noise and BM atmospherics and drone, and somehow managed to retain that soft, gentle whispering core. The time I’d seen him before that he was solo with his voice and a lot of guitar feedback. A month or so ago he said he was working on a new live show with a distorted gong. The guy’s a treasure.

09/01/10 4:00am

I’m Having Fun Now is the debut full-length from Jenny and Johnny, the new project featuring veteran indie rock siren Jenny Lewis and her songwriting boyfriend, Johnathan Rice. It comes at a time in each of their careers when they need to get beyond some of the things that have been holding them back.

Jenny Lewis has the dubious distinction of being far more talented than the entirety of her recorded output would seem to indicate. As far back as The Execution of All Things, the very much underrated Rilo Kiley album from 2002, she’s displayed a keen ear for melody, and an even keener sense of drama and style. Every album she’s made (save, perhaps, for Rilo Kiley’s abysmal swan song, Under the Blacklight) has had its share of near perfect songs, be they classic indie pop, gospel-leaning soul, or Laurel Canyon folk. But she’s never been able to sustain it for too long, drifting all too frequently into dialed in, cliched takes on whatever genre she’s working in at the moment.

Johnathan Rice has the rather more dubious distinction of being known more for the person he’s dating than for the work he’s done, which has been mostly of the terminally boring singer-songwriter variety you’re always hearing in the background on Grey’s Anatomy.

Even at their worst, both Lewis and Rice have always had similar saving graces in that they can straight-up sing their asses off—she does sultry yearning and playful, self-aware complaining as well as anyone, while his clear, deceivingly strong voice lends itself to any number of styles, making him the perfect foil for his chameleonic partner. More than anything else, their vocals take center stage on I’m Having Fun Now, and it makes for a remarkably pleasant listening experience.

They share vocal duties on most songs, with the first single and opening track, “Scissor Runner.” offering a pretty good idea of what’s to follow. Rice takes the lead on the verses, with Lewis contributing only the tail end of a few call and response-type lines. By the time the chorus rolls around, though, they’re singing together. The first time you hear it is an undeniable a-ha moment. If they made only the most terrible decisions from here on in, it still wouldn’t be so bad. They sound wonderful together.

And they sound happy, too, as the album’s title suggests, even though the peppiness of their delivery belies the more grim tone of many of the lyrics. Standout track “Big Wave” laments the country’s sad financial state, and the things we do to escape, from drugs (prescription and otherwise) to casual sex. Elsewhere on the record, they seem exhausted, tired of abusing themselves and calling it part of the life they signed up for. In that way, and sonically as well, there’s a pretty striking similarity between I’m Having Fun Now and It’s a Shame About Ray-era Lemonheads, when Evan Dando enlisted the help of Juliana Hatfield on bass and backing vocals. There’s no clear leader in Jenny and Johnny, but one suspects that will change pretty quickly when they perform live. Lewis has the bigger voice and the bigger presence, for whatever that’s worth.

They could have gone in any number of directions with this album, and it’s to their eternal credit that they made something this straightforward sound so smart, especially at a time when straightforward and smart have come to be viewed as contradictory. This is the best work Lewis has done in years, and by far the best work of Rice’s career.

07/21/10 4:04am

Digging For Something 7″
(Merge Records)

The first single from Superchunk’s forthcoming ninth album, Majesty Shredding, comes in the form of a 1,000-run limited edition 7″ hand-numbered on multi-colored vinyl. “Digging for Something,” which features backing vocals by The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, is classic Superchunk: a spirited, hook-laden romp with impressive guitar interplay, rolling, attention-grabbing drums and a chorus that will inspire nearly as much impassioned pogoing as their early material. B-side “February Punk” is a non-album track that has them sounding a bit more unhinged: the guitars squeal just a little more than usual, the drums dive confidently into double-time territory. It would be tempting to saddle Superchunk with the subtly damning “important band” label if they didn’t continue making some of the most consistently enjoyable and liberating indie-rock around.

07/21/10 4:00am

As Wavves’ Nathan Williams insists on reminding us every single chance he gets, inadvertently or otherwise, there’s an undeniably bone-headed streak running through a lot of the lo-fi indie rock that’s been so popular in the past couple years. There’s a proud sort of minimalism at work, evident in the across-the-board low quality of the recordings, sure, but also in the—let’s be generous—unfussy, laid-back approach to matters of intellect. There’s a shared, all-consuming, and frustratingly debilitating desire for simpler times: simpler emotions, simpler relationships, simpler ways have a fun. It’s not particularly interesting from a philosophical perspective, nor is it an idea that, in the context of, well, anything, seems particularly meaningful. And so you have a sub-genre (or maybe just a trend) that’s devoid of social or cultural relevance (I’m not buying the recession-related explanations), and that clearly frowns on the very notion of innovation. By default, then, through perhaps nothing more than the process of elimination, melody is king. Or queen, as the case may be.

Bethany Cosentino, lead singer and songwriter in the much-hyped, L.A.-based duo Best Coast, is probably the most purely talented of anyone currently working in this style. She’s merely a passable guitarist (which is really all that’s demanded of her), but a surprisingly affecting singer and an absolute expert when it comes to the sun-drenched, bbq-ready melodies this stuff lives or dies on. There are subtle (and not-so-subtle) hints of 90s alt-rock here and there, but she’s clearly most influenced by 60s girl-groups—there’s reverb everywhere, and an ever-present sense of yearning that’s at first quite likable and then simply infuriating for its extreme narrowness.

A selection of lyrics from the band’s aptly titled debut full-length, Crazy For You: “The other girl is not like me/she’s prettier and skinnier/she has a college degree/I dropped out when I was 17” (“Boyfriend”), “I can’t do anything without you,” “You make me lazy, but I love you” (“Crazy For You”), “Every time you leave this house, everything falls apart,” “I can’t get myself off the couch” (“Goodbye”), “When you leave me, the bed is empty/And I feel crazy” (“Our Deal”), “The sun was out/I thought I was fine/But then you slipped into my mind” (“Bratty B”), “Every day’s the same/I feel like I’m losing my mind/All I do is think about you all the time… I just wish that you would tell me/Is this real, or are we through?”

You get the point. And yes, granted, loving someone is really difficult. It’s powerful and all-consuming, and it’s also the subject of a huge amount of the best pop songs of the past 60 years, so it’s hard to hold it against Sorentino that she’s willing to sing about nothing else (except for smoking weed—she seems to like smoking weed), but what’s most troubling is the lack of nuance and poetry, let alone insight, in what she sings. It’s all so plainspoken, so single-minded that it’s nearly unbearable. It should also set off all sorts of feminist alarms: the extent to which our narrator seems to define herself in relation to a man is at best irksome and at worst extremely dangerous. This is the type of idea, though, that the album wouldn’t dare engage with or acknowledge, and it’s a shame. There are elements here that really do shine—they’re just not quite bright enough.

07/07/10 4:03am

Wolf Parade
Expo 86

Sub Pop

Expo 86 is the most collaborative-sounding Wolf Parade album yet, insofar as it’s not immediately clear which of the band’s two traditionally distinct songwriters is responsible for each song. Spencer Krug, whose Sunset Rubdown shines a light on his hyper-dramatic, emotionally complicated musings, stands in contrast to Dan Boeckner, who does a more straightforward guitar thing, albeit with a focus on the slyly danceable, with Handsome Furs. On Expo 86, the two approaches are mixed and matched in a way that’s confusing, almost unsettling for longtime fans of the band(s). It stands to reason that this would be the surest path to greatness&#8212combining the aesthetics of two very gifted songwriters&#8212and there are undeniable highs here, like the foreboding “What Did My Lover Say” and the glorious “Yulia.” But Expo also sounds a little bit like Krug and Boeckner hedging their bets, not quite convinced they wouldn’t be better off holding their best work for their other bands. It’s tough to blame them.

06/23/10 4:25am

In March of this year, Titus Andronicus released The Monitor, a hugely ambitious album that uses the U.S. Civil War as a metaphor to explore our urge to define ourselves in relation to a perceived enemy. On a recent afternoon outside Brooklyn Bowl, the band was kind enough to answer some questions about the album, about being from New Jersey, and especially about Lady Gaga.

The L: So, now that the new record’s been out for a few months, you’ve gotten the Best New Music tag from Pitchfork, you’ve toured two continents—how has the time following The Monitor been different than the time following your debut?

Eric Harm (drums): Well, we had two headlining tours in America for our last record. The first one was weird, ’cause we were still on a really small record label. For the second one, the record had been out for a long time.

Patrick Stickles (vocals, guitar):
It was pretty much a dead issue at that point.

Eric: For this one, the record came out, we toured, and it was a considerably stronger tour. A lot more people came out. A lot of people were interested in the record at the time. We played some very good spaces, and we even sold out a few shows.

The L: Was there a sense going into this record that there was a moment for you guys to seize?

Patrick: I feel like we’ve pretty much done the same stuff, you know? The world is just catching up to us now. We haven’t really modified our approach that much. It’s the same thing—just driving around in the old van, trying to do our best, trying to stick by our code of conduct about how we think bands ought to operate.

The L: I wanted to talk about the degree to which you guys identify and are identified by others as a New Jersey band despite living in Brooklyn. Over the years, I’ve noticed in a lot of people a sense of pride in being from Jersey that rivals the pride Texans seem to have.

Eric: I would like to make a funny contrast in the way that Texans approach their state pride and the way New Jerseyites approach their state pride. Texans are like, “Don’t mess with Texas!” and in Jersey, we have t-shirts that say, “New Jersey: Where the Weak are Killed and Eaten.”

Patrick: Very self-deprecating sense of pride from New Jersey. It is true, though, it is like Texas in that Texas is one of those states where people from other parts of the country have a pretty strong idea of what it’s like there, that the people from there don’t agree with. Maybe that’s New Jersey too, you know, people think they know everything about Jersey from seeing Jersey Couture.

Amy Klein (guitar, violin): New Jersey, like punk, is all about the pride of the underdog. Being from Jersey, you’re automatically degraded—you might start life from a lower position than some of your peers, but you’re also proud of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. And even if you don’t make it up very far at all, you’re proud of being the lowest of the low.

Ian Graetzer (bass): I think that’s every state in America. People in Kentucky probably think Cincinnati people suck. Pretty much every state you’re not from, probably thinks you’re shit.

Patrick: What is it about humans that makes us want to have so much of this polarization? It could be a good thing to explore in the context of an indie rock record or something. That would be cool. To try and come up with an extended metaphor or something to discuss that.

05/12/10 4:05am

The National
High Violet

Last week, a friend whose musical taste I have a great deal of respect for asked me a question: Why does everybody like The National so much? It is an important question, I think, and one that I’d tried to answer a few months earlier when the band first dropped “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” the first proper single from their new album, High Violet. The best I’ve ever been able to come up with is that everybody likes the National because no one dislikes the National. Since there’s nothing even close to objectionable about them, and because they’ve got more than enough credibility to get you by in almost any situation, they’re perhaps the band most likely to be played at whatever party, bar or even restaurant you’re at—and as a result, their albums are given an unusual amount of opportunities to grow on you.

What makes them a band that is very much worth celebrating rather than resenting—for being, say, pushers of bland, middling, NPR-approved indie rock, which is how they can come off at first—is that they do start to grow on you, and they never really stop. Melodies that at first seemed forgettable, or barely even there, begin to stand out. The vocals, which at first are so easy to ignore because of how often they’re obscured almost beyond recognition by layers of guitars and keyboards, eventually break through the mix, line by line, until you realize you’re listening to one of indie-rock’s three or four best lyricists in Matt Berninger. Almost more than the lyrics themselves, of course, it’s the delivery: Berninger has perfected the exhausted tone of the deeply troubled young smart person who can’t figure out if he should be crying or laughing and thus chooses to do both, at the same time, while drinking heavily.

In a musical climate where so much is made of the very earliest material a band records, The National has been honing their sound—or their ability to translate a very specific mood into a sound—for over a decade now, and it seems safe to say they’ve perfected it on High Violet. It’s the grandest sounding record they’ve ever made: the arrangements are a touch more elaborate and far more dramatic, less willing to be relegated to background music, even at first. “Terrible Love”—which the band debuted, to the internet’s great delight, two months ago on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon—is an instant classic, a perfect, slow building, increasingly noisy introduction to the
rest of the album. “Sorrow” is upbeat, despite its considerably downtrodden lyircs—”Sorrow found me when I was young/Sorrow waited, sorrow won”&emdash;as is “Afraid of Everyone,” with its refrain of “I’m afraid of everyone, and I don’t have the drugs to sort it out.” Berninger’s most impressive quality as a frontman, of course, is his ability to sing lines like this without making you want to kick his ass.

On the whole, High Violet is a good deal harder edged than Boxer, if not quite as rowdy as Alligator or Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. One of the most enjoyable new developments is that the band’s figured out how to incorporate noisy elements without going full-on screamy or relying on the tired quiet-loud thing. In general, things just sound a little crunchier, a little more menacing, like the bass on the relatively subdued “Little Faith” or the hard-thumping floor-tom and the slightly broken-up guitar on “Lemonworld.” One imagines it’s the type of development that could stand to shorten that initial warming period. Things slow down by the end of the album, with “Runaway,” “England” and the beautiful, album-closing “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” but the sense of urgency (about feeling no urgency) remains throughout. It feels like The National really accomplished something with this album, and it’s not clear to me that they need to make another record quite like it. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, though. For now, just enjoy the record you’ll hear at every bar you step into for the next 12 months, and the record you’ll find yourself humming on every drunk walk home.

02/17/10 4:30am

Clem Snide
The Meat of Life

Despite achieving the lion’s share of its notoriety in the 21st century, functionally, Clem Snide was always viewed more as a 90s band. This somewhat depressing fact became impossible to ignore after the 2001 release of The Ghost of Fashion, a mostly quiet, endearing little record full of elegant, country-tinged pop songs that seemed never to stop winking. It was so littered with pop culture references and lyrics that alternated between soul-crushing pessimism and bright-eyed optimism that it was nearly impossible to figure out what was serious and what wasn’t. Meaning was obscured by jokes, or maybe it wasn’t—who could tell? Within a few months of the album’s arrival, 9/11 happened, and, as I’m sure you remember, there was a notion perpetuated by writers and critics that—god help me, it’s embarrassing to even type—the age of irony had ended.

And in a way it had, even if only because people kept insisting as much. There was a noticeable shift in the type of music that was considered timely, with the rawness and authenticity of the Strokes and the White Stripes standing as the most obvious examples. Clem Snide was essentially hung out to dry, cast aside as too cute or as relics of a bygone era when indie rock bands were allowed to be so pleased with their own cleverness. Even when they released their excellent cover of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” by which point the music crit world had already begun its move toward condescending populism, no one seemed entirely sure how to take it. This was likely due to singer Eef Barzelay’s voice: always gentle but at the same time weirdly accusatory, like Dylan only even more nasaly.

After Ghost of Fashion, the band, originally based in Brooklyn before relocating to Nashville, would go on to release a few more records of equal or slightly lower quality before quietly calling it quits in 2006. Barzelay released two solo albums—one very good, the other just meh—and last year the aborted 2006 album Hungry Bird finally came out. They’re back at it again, with The Meat of Life, their seventh full-length overall and their first new one in four years.

They seem, for a moment anyway, to pick up exactly where they left off, with exceedingly lovely album opener “Walmart Parking Lot,” about seeing the light of day, literally, after the unceremonious ending of a relationship outside the biggest chain store in the world. “BFF,” one of the few other upbeat tracks on the album, might take that same relationship as its subject. Barzelay issues the warning, “Trust me, you don’t want to know how I really feel,” before coming clean: “What if what I want is/What if what I need is/Just a little more than all your love?”

It’s this type of directness that stands as the most recurring theme on The Meat of Life. Musically, the songs are far more straightforward, which is actually sort of a shame. They’re mostly based on the acoustic guitar, and they’re not quite as dynamic as the band’s earlier material. The weirdo country vibe is gone too, replaced by a simpler indie-pop sound that’s inoffensive but not terribly impressive either. Lyrically, there’s almost no winking to speak of, and the intellectual playfulness is toned down in general. For detractors, this is most definitely a good thing; for longtime supporters, it will take some getting used to.
“I Got High” is the album’s centerpiece. Like the scene in Almost Famous when Russell Hammond attends a party at a high school kid’s house, the song imagines Barzelay getting high with a group of Sufjan Stevens fans, riding shopping carts around a parking lot. He romanticizes suburbia and first kisses, longs for adolescent innocence: “This song goes out to all you beautiful American girls and boys,” he sings, and you realize his decision to name-drop the hyper-earnest Sufjan is a meaningful one. It’s like he’s declaring, finally, “I’ve meant every word I’ve ever sung.” We made it more complicated than it needed to be, not him.