06/17/15 9:45am
06/17/2015 9:45 AM |


Upon hearing Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” Brian Eno famously guessed that the single would “change club music for the next 15 years.” That bit of fortune-telling, recounted countless times since spoken in 1977, ended up being an understatement. Electronically produced dance music hadn’t even sniffed its cultural peak by 1992. It’s since become youth culture, major festival fodder, and blockbuster mainstream entertainment on a scale that Eno wouldn’t have claimed on his fourth lager. Club walls can no longer confine it. And now, Summer’s iconic producer, Giorgio Moroder, returns as an elder statesman to a pop culture he had a strong hand in shaping. (more…)

10/03/11 4:07am
10/03/2011 4:07 AM |

Twin Sister

In Heaven


The sound of Long Island rarely manifests in sophisticated music. But on their earliest collections of home-recorded avant-pop, Twin Sister changed that. Having performed together in various bands since their teenage years, a noticeably well-developed chemistry guided Twin Sister’s 2008 EP Vampires with Dreaming Kids and 2010’s Color Your Life, and their suburban roots repeatedly seeped through. Breakout tracks like “Lady Daydream” and “I Want a House” seamlessly cloaked the insularity of Long Island life with loungy bass lines, deep synth flourishes and an authentic urban cool.

Twin Sister’s debut long-player, In Heaven captures the sound of a group coming further into its own; making too much of the album’s myriad reference points would be to underestimate its utter originality. What’s most evident is how Twin Sister takes the influences they cite—oddball disco and pop composers like Arthur Russell and Björk—and applies them conceptually. “Daniel” mostly recalls the band’s previous material, shimmering slowly with singer Andrea Estella’s murky, dream-like vocals and subtle, four-on-the-floor drumming from Bryan Ujueta. But one album highlight, “Stop,” penned and lead by guitarist Eric Cardona, is a far cry from their previous work: a smooth slab of Phil Collins-inspired boy-pop with sky-high synths and a dramatic string section.

Despite the album’s increased maturity, it is still pervaded by a certain level of playfulness; make-believe characters appear on seven tracks on In Heaven, which was recorded throughout the winter at a six-bedroom Hamptons party house, and titled after their former tourmates, Bear In Heaven. “Gene Ciampi” is a Spaghetti Western-style track based on an Asian cowboy movie star, while the retrofuturistic epic “Kimmi in a Rice Field” began as an anime drawing by Estella, who is also a visual artist. “Saturday Sunday” presents a more realistic character, and some of Estella’s most memorable lyrics, as she quotes a smiling but sad bikini-clad girl sick of her dull friends and dumb, loveless weekends.

While that protagonist embodies typical suburban emotion, Heaven‘s disco-oriented single, “Bad Street,” covers a lesser-known Long Island—the Latino life Estella experienced as a child, with her mother’s friends who lived “five families in one house, the carpet made from scraps they duct-taped together to make one big rug.” That house was on a weird street, Estella told me during an interview in August, but she has good memories of hanging with families that had it rough and stayed optimistic. The backstory adds weight to Estella’s verses, as they glide alongside submerged 70s synths and funk-guitars that sound quintessentially New York.

Despite the exquisite intricacies of Heaven‘s production—even more noticeable if compared to early demos of nearly every album track, available at the band’s website—the record’s one pitfall could be what it lacks in intensity after seeing them perform its material live. The recordings feel safer compared to the band’s show, which features more theatric and avant-garde vocal stylings from Estella, as well as more immediately piercing synths. Nonetheless, Twin Sister accomplishes a rare feat in sidestepping the fads to which many of their indie-pop contemporaries cling. It makes In Heaven unquestionably one of 2011’s best.

Photo Shawn Brackbill

09/28/11 4:10am
09/28/2011 4:10 AM |

Zola Jesus


(Sacred Bones)

Zola Jesus, or really, Nika Roza Danilova, who does most everything you hear on the band’s records except play strings, is not an artist who sounds, or aspires to sound, “effortless.” A diminutive young woman with an enormous voice, her songs hinge on the contrast between her earnest, solemn intensity and industrial and synth-pop elements that often veer into discordance. Conatus, the title of her second or third full-length record in three years (depending on how you’re counting), is a Latin term used in metaphysics to describe the will to exist, to strive for betterment. That telegraphed effort might have been awkward if this wasn’t clearly her best work. The instrumentation here—spare, beautiful strings and piano, comingling with the harsh texture of assorted broken robots—is an intriguing platform for the singing, which has all the confidence of big 80s pop. The record dabbles with other eras, “Vessel”‘s glitchy undercurrent recalls Björk’s career peak, Homogenic, for instance. From track to track, the most important through line is a well-defined sense of space; Danilova’s voice soaring above comparatively minimal instrumentals, as if the few card tables it’d take to house the band’s gear were placed in the middle of a huge, empty train station. It’s Gothic like a cathedral, rather than “goth” like a gloomy mall kiosk.

Zola Jesus songs are less about slick hooks laid into verse-chorus-verse and more about a slow and deliberate tension building towards release. That continual climb to cathartic boom is what allowed her two 2010 releases to make such an impact within their slim run times. They felt bigger than slight EPs. At album length, there’s the risk of emotional exhaustion. Songs as different as the throbbing synth-pop of “Hikikomori” and the chilly balladry of “Skin” take a similarly wrenching toll. Light and breezy, it is not. You sense that Danilova is still getting a handle on what shape her songs can take. The album’s best, the evocatively titled “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake,” subverts formula to swell effect. With its pretty piano loops and big, slow beats, the song initially has that same sense of momentum rising. A third of the way in it feels like every drum strike is somehow louder, more emphatic than the last. But instead of perpetually reaching for a higher structural peak, it leaps off halfway, hang-gliding down on a gust of gentle string arrangements. The record could use more of those counterintuitive zags. It’s quite likely to be a crossover success both for Danilova, and dark local label Sacred Bones, who’ve not yet put out something with this sort of mainstream pop heft. It seems more like a starting point than a culmination though, and I’d hazard to guess that the best records are yet to come. With her youth, talent, and work-rate, it’d be a sort of shame if Conatus ended up as Zola Jesus’ masterpiece, anyway

Photo Angel Ceballos

09/28/11 4:00am

Big Troubles
Romantic Comedy


“I think it has just become so trendy to make a lo-fi record that the idea to make another one just seemed silly. The world doesn’t need another one right now,” Alex Craig, one of Big Troubles’ two choirboy-meets-Billy Corgan frontmen, told The Agit Reader in a recent interview. They’re smart kids, careful not to indulge in too much of the reckless fun of last year’s debut, Worry; even smarter to reel in Mitch Easter—R.E.M.’s producer during the early 80s, Pavement’s producer on Brighten the Corners—to help them achieve something more sparkling, and revealing, during their time in the studio.

The result is a jangle-pop platter subdued by the sort of self-medicated jadedness that helps teenage lust go down easier, perfectly contrived for a sophomore album called Romantic Comedy. (Insert John Hughes reference here.) In one fell swoop, songs mix the wistfulness of youth and the weariness of a band freshly removed from it. The hooks stack up nicely and sound like they should soundtrack a Brooklyn date night, if only the lyrics weren’t coming from songs titled “Misery” and “Sad Girls.”

But while Wild Nothing has their jacked-up synths, Real Estate has their stylized tones, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have their guileless enthusiasm, and Yuck has their across-the-board revivalism, Romantic Comedy lacks a stamp that distinctly makes it Big Troubles’ own. Though, hearing Craig coo, “Love is in the air, but I don’t care…and if I hear the word again, I think I’ll drill a hole in my head” is quite a twisted pleasure. Maybe cynicism masked by indulgent dreaminess is Big Troubles’ defining mark? I’m ok with that.

09/28/11 4:00am

Youth Lagoon
The Year of Hibernation

(Fat Possum)

The Year of Hibernation is a quiet killer. It’s 22-year-old creator, a former Boise State undergrad named Trevor Powers, meant for it to be a method of purging his less-than-happy memories and extreme anxiety—”I sometimes feel like I’m literally being eaten up inside,”a press release quotes—but with every slow climb and searing surge, it rips a heartstring out of your chest too.

Powers is operating within a neurotic, distressed head space and armed with a talent for piecing words into intimate narratives. If you swapped out Omaha for Boise and the year 2000 with 2011, you could argue his Youth Lagoon alias has the markings of Bright Eyes for the Laptop-Pop Generation: those used to an era where a kid holed up in a dorm room can post a song on his Bandcamp page in May, incite widespread applause among critics within the week, and ink a record deal by July. Or an era where clean guitar lines and drum kits are ditched in favor of distorted synths, torched organs and looping devices that converge at a point between Mount Eerie’s discreetly melodic nether regions and Cocteau Twin’s reverbed dream state.

Power’s vocals are consistently obscured, thanks to a thick blanket of fuzz layered on top: that’s how they sound in his head, he told John Norris in an interview. Throughout the bulk of the album, even on the illuminating, mountain-reaching swells of “Montana”and “July,”the volume and clarity of his voice stays put—the sound of being small in an infinitely big world. But even with only being able to decipher every other word, there’s a sense he’s neither surrendering nor wallowing. In fact, there was a last-minute change to the album art when he opted to make a rainbow-plastered photo from a family vacation to Hawaii the record cover. It was a trip that signaled reconnecting with an ex-girlfriend and brighter days ahead. Power’s so-called year of hibernation may be over, but Youth Lagoon’s career has just begun.

09/28/11 4:00am

The Whole Love

(dB Records)

It’s as if the last two albums never happened. Ever since Jeff Tweedy became stable, when he kicked his painkiller addiction and decreased his dependence on cigarettes, which bassist John Stirratt once said increased the man’s focus, Wilco has suffered. Half of 2007’s breezy Sky Blue Sky is good, but there were too many duds on that straightforward effort (“Hate It Here” might be the band’s worst song) to consider it essential, while 2009’s Wilco (The Album) tried to pass off cheeky as clever, and failed.

The Whole Love begins with “Art of Almost,” the band’s most aggressive song in years (the first word: “no”), which begins with a twitchy groove before becoming a polyrhythmic roar. It’s similar, in both theme and structure, to one of Wilco’s best tracks, “Misunderstood,” and it allows Nels Cline to unleash one of his patented guitar freak-outs. Too often in the past, he’s been restrained (Sky Blue Sky‘s biggest offense), but he’s in top form here, pushing his sound as far as it can go, while drummer Glenn Kotche races beside him.

There’s nothing quite like “Almost” elsewhere on the self-produced Whole Love, and that allows every member of the group to highlight what they do best, from Mikael Jorgenson’s fuzzy organ in “I Might,” which ends with a clear sample of the Stooges’ “TV Eye,” to Stirratt’s rollicking bassline on the title track. Closer “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” a heartfelt 12-minute narrative in which Tweedy ruminates on the time he had a conversation with the boyfriend of the A Thousand Acres author, is accompanied by gorgeous flourishes from Kotche, who does double duty pitter-pattering on the drums and tapping the xylophone.

Tweedy sounds invigorated and on a mission, too, wanting to shed the Dad Rock label that’s been tagged to Wilco for years. In “Sunloathe,” he sings, “I don’t want to lose this fight,” and later on the album, “I was born to die alone.” That’s preferable to “Wilco will love you, baby” any day.

09/21/11 4:00am
09/21/2011 4:00 AM |

Mikal Cronin
Mikal Cronin

(Trouble in Mind)

Can’t say you ever pegged Thee Oh Sees frontman John Dwyer as a flute guy, eh? But, sure enough, there he is, blasting through a spidery flute solo within the first minutes of fellow psych-rock overachiever Mikal Cronin’s debut full-length. This happens again and again on the album—deft maneuvers in which Cronin lures you in with a sweetened, California-baked hook, only to hit you with something completely off-the-wall. Menacing drum fills, tweaked-out guitar, emotive whistling. It’s a constant game of lurching forward and then pulling back, turning an unassuming indie-rock record into a fully immersive experience.

In cobbling it together, Cronin sounds like a refined version of Dwyer’s Oh Sees at times, and Kurt Vile covering Girls at others, which thereby alludes to Harry Nilsson, The Animals and post-Rubber Soul Beatles, of course (the record begins with what is essentially Cronin’s take on Abbey Road’s “Because”). Suffice to say there’s a lot to grab ahold of here, especially from a name that’s coming relatively out of nowhere, despite him dabbling in fuzz-obliterated garage group The Moonhearts and with longtime collaborator Ty Segall. Just as the countless scrambled bits between bulldozer of a song “Green & Blue” and the revved-up parts on “Gone” start to suffocate the album, Cronin clears the waters, his knack for timing impeccable. “I don’t want apathy” he sings, latching the line to an impossibly hooky chorus on the second track. He cuts through the clutter early on to set the tone. In an ever-present psych-rock scene, some will stand out. This here is a case in point.

09/14/11 4:06am
09/14/2011 4:06 AM |

Wild Flag
Wild Flag
(Merge Records)

Few rock bands could make much of a lyrical allusion to broken glass. But cue a track from Wild Flag’s debut long-player, the chugging, psych-tinged “Glass Tambourine,” and more interesting imagery is imminent. The group is, after all, comprised of punk luminaries—singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss of the indomitable Sleater-Kinney; singer-guitarist Mary Timony of both Helium and Autoclave; keyboardist Rebecca Cole of Elephant 6 band The Minders—who have been obliterating indie rock’s looming glass ceiling for over two decades.

Sleater-Kinney emerged from a 90s movement of intelligent guitar music: shredding, stereotype-defying women full of potent rage and hope, whose complexity was often erroneously whittled to “angry women in rock.” But this band is not Sleater-Kinney. To singularly situate Wild Flag, though, one might begin with Brownstein’s most recent shining Sleater-Kinney moment: howling through the single, “Entertain,” from their last record, 2005’s The Woods. “You come around looking 1984/You’re such a bore, 1984,” she shrieked. “Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore!” One can only imagine her thoughts on our current musical moment: retrospective and male-dominated. Perhaps it’s why her new band, instead, goes for something 
more timeless.

Wild Flag captures rock’s definitive energies: desire (“Boom”), aggression (“Racehorse”), fury (“Future Crimes”), strength (“Something Came Over Me”), bliss (“Romance”). It’s a record of passion, liberation and friendship that fuses 70s punk and careful hints of New Wave, full of jagged riffs and psychedelic keys, alternating between Brownstein’s fiery howls and Timony’s cool drawl. But Wild Flag‘s reference points are few; there was little feminist music in the 70s, and this is an utterly feminist record.

“Romance” opens Wild Flag with a bouncing ode to sound itself. Weiss’s muscular drums fill between Brownstein’s raspy, heartfelt verses, fuzz-laden fret-climbs, and saccharine group choruses that recall 60s pop—”shake! shimmy, shake!”—as the group sings about finding each other through music. “We love the sound, the sound is what found us,” they sing, “sound is the blood between me and you.” The layered choruses soon turn towards liberation through rock: “We sing to free ourselves from the room.”

A mid-tempo rocker full of wah-wah riffs and la-la-las, “Something Came Over Me” reaches its most resonant line—”I feel faint but never weak”—within thirty seconds. Another highlight, Brownstein’s “Boom,” is a swaggering, garage-like countdown of sharp guitars and trembling vox. Feminists generally loathe rock star worship, but if you love smart, charismatic rock, it’s easy to obsess over Brownstein here. As she moves through Wild Flag‘s first single, “Future Crimes,” it’s the record’s most gripping work—urgent and forward-moving, full of repetitive, angular minor chords and ferocious 4/4 beatkeeping that build to the final line: “If you’re gonna give up on this fight, then I’m gonna call you a liar!”

Despite the album’s clean finish and NPR-rock standing—indeed, amid the recent historicizing of Riot Grrrl, the broadened appeal seems groundbreaking—Wild Flag retains an indelible teenage spirit, stressing rock’s ability to incubate. Maybe grown-up punks will understand the album more than Gen Pitchfork, but there’s a lesson in its steadfast energy that defies time. To draw from Sleater-Kinney’s essential third member: “Culture is what we make it.” Now, as ever, is the time to invent.

Photo John Clark

09/14/11 4:05am

Father, Son, Holy Ghost

(True Panther Sounds)

Broken Dreams Club, that near-perfect slice of pop/rock formalism dropped last year by San Francisco’s Girls, found Christopher Owens self-medicating a broken heart, as usual. He lushly sobbed over the world’s ails, wondered if numbing up wasn’t more attractive than engaging, daydreamed about throwing a woman over his shoulder and heading south. An earned reputation as one of indie-rock’s best songwriters hasn’t been a foolproof aphrodisiac. The follow-up, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, documents Owens’ continuing romantic despair as an epic poem; a long, wandering set about love lost, love wanted, love denied. “Well, who cares about love?” he bluffs to Alex, an unavailable, black-haired beauty who’s got an anthem of longing named for her. It’s the least convincing line in a record of intense conviction, gentle earnestness. Owens cares about love so much! He obsesses over it with the intensity of someone who hasn’t felt the sensation in a good, long while. Oh, he gets girls occasionally. But they aren’t the right girls. He’s “been messing with so many girls who could give a damn about who [he is].” If he likes the girl, his love, “like a river,” washes them away. He openly, desperately wishes twice for his mother, or at least a dream girl who can provide unconditional love in the face of improper hair care, drug use, or borderline creepy intensity. Suggested alternate album title: Girls – Girls, Girls, Girls.

The title the record does have, name-dropping the Holy Trinity, is initially puzzling. The band’s sound continues growing and sure, that includes touches of gospel. You notice them most on “Vomit,” an unfortunately named track that instantly ranks among the best modern rock songs we’ve got about transcendent yearning. But alongside those sweet, soulful touches comes thrilling, evil guitar crunch far removed from a youth pastor’s acoustic strum. Where previous Girls releases were notably bright and 60s-tinged, this one feels like the 70s—longer, heavier, messier. New wrinkles easily blend in throughout. Owens is a bonafide hippie who effortlessly incorporates post-hippie genres like power-pop, new wave, AM radio bubblegum, power ballads. The record does have a pronounced devotional feel, though. It exalts the glory of golden oldies radio, of pop music itself. His lyrics, unvaryingly simple declarations of love and loss, are repeated over and over in minor variation, hymn-like. When “Die” presents the personal hell of total pessimism, its turn to stoner hard rock makes perfect sense. What else is Pop/Rock Hell going to sound like but Sabbath? It’s plausible that Owens, with his tragic upbringing of death, cult membership, and life on the street, with his every recorded breath used to reassert just how goddamn lonely he is, should consider pop craftsmanship—the one thing he’s undeniably got going for him–as a transcendent, redemptive spiritual force. Maybe his work doesn’t offer much for tear-it-all-down types, those chasing only the newest sounds and genres. For anyone with any sort of affection at all for the traditions of rock music and their intersection with pure pop, this album is a glorious place to worship.

Photo Sandy Kim

09/14/11 4:04am

St. Vincent
Strange Mercy


My favorite concert moment of 2011 so far occurred in May, when St. Vincent performed the songs of Big Black at the Our Band Could Be Your Life show at the Bowery Ballroom. I knew Annie Clark as the demure mind behind Actor and Marry Me, albums that were just a bit too pleasant, so boy was I shocked when Clark tore through a blistering version of “Kerosene,” and boy am I glad she brought some of that fiery ferocity to her new album.

Strange Mercy begins with “Chloe In the Afternoon,” where a breathy Clark and her fuzzy guitar (the album’s true hero) do a bit of a call and response, accompanied by a clapping drumbeat, followed by the synth-reliant “Cruel” and the album’s best song, “Cheerleader,” which starts sparse and ends wrapped in feedback. Clark sings that she’s done playing dumb, that she doesn’t “wanna be a cheerleader no more,” and what you see is what you get, or in our case, what you hear is what you get.

And what we get is urgency, not only from that near-perfect opening trio, but also on the lo-fi “Northern Lights,” “Hysterical Strength,” which dissolves into a mess of noise-funk (in a good way); and closer “Year of the Tiger,” a seemingly minor track until the song takes a turn two minutes in, when Clark begins chanting, “Oh America, can I owe you one?” before returning to its original path. The misdirection is exhilarating, because that moment never came in St. Vincent’s previous work. It makes Strange Mercy feel more vital, and more importantly, less calculated. In the past, it felt like Clark was making pretty music just because she could, but she’s now doing it because she has to.

Photo Tina Tyrell