Album Review: Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

When I got my first car, Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues were two of the very first albums I bought, partly a side effect of my frantic attempts to absolve myself from succumbing to the toxic abyss of pre-teen pop music that still had a hold on me judging from my music library, but mostly because I had become infatuated with the music itself. I remember I wanted something more, something better from music at that time, and that I specifically wanted physical copies to put in my car’s driver’s side pocket even though during that time it seemed to me as if everyone was still drunk on digital downloads, still in the honeymoon era of marrying technology with, considering the state of affairs today, no divorce in sight. I listened to Robin Pecknold’s honeyed, passionate vocals and his guitar’s melancholic plucks mixed with the feeling of warmth due to the sunshine filtering through the windshield and the potent smell of my old volvo’s musty seats, and soon I began to equate Fleet Foxes with the ideas of freedom and independence, both of which I had to briefly set aside the moment I unbuckled my seatbelt and stepped onto the pavement. Pecknold’s commanding, intellectual songwriting and intricate, thoughtful compositions managed to rid my adolescent mind of any anguish I had compiled throughout the day, and I could focus on the road ahead of me, save for the occasional existential thought now and again.

With the gift of the car came a series of unavoidable events that come with growing older – graduation from high school, entrance into college, the required reading of what seemed like hundreds of poems and essays for my English degree, writing countless papers over the research of countless literary ideas, and finally, early graduation from college with said English degree – and afterwards, perhaps because I didn’t seize as much from the experience as I should have, I couldn’t help feeling as if I was ripped painfully down the middle, simultaneously reaching for the future while beckoning for the past to continue. Pecknold drew a similar conclusion for himself after touring for Helplessness Blues, and in turn, returned to college and took up several recreational classes to clear his mind, shortly afterwards returning to music once he realized those things didn’t help him return to a sense of peace as much as songwriting and composition did.

And now, six years after the release of Helplessness Blues and five years after sliding it into my car’s cd player throughout the stress of growing up and realizing personal responsibility, I know that if I tried to listen to Crack-Up while driving, it wouldn’t give me the same freeing feelings of independence, but hopeful wistfulness instead – Pecknold’s journey, while perhaps not able to be replicated or even fully understood by the next person, the emotions experienced throughout are at least, to some effect, relatable, and after a few trying years of my own I understand that due to living in a world so unforgiving and unfair, it seems necessary to indulge in one’s own thoughts and desires – while at the same time avoiding to some extent the pressures and recent events of society – in order to provide it with any form of worthwhile contribution. And, Crack-Up, beautifully cinematic and painfully thoughtful, might be Fleet Foxes most meaningful contribution yet.

Part of the reason why Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues (as well as their Sun Giant EP) were so highly regarded when they were released was due to their sheer accessibility while simultaneously expressing such intellectual and visually dense narratives; you could instantly be transported to the Blue Ridge Mountains where no one knows your name, or lost and starry-eyed on Mykonos, or be placed at the edge of the ocean with hope and wistfulness wound so tightly together you couldn’t tell which you were feeling. The music, pure indie folk at its core, evoked ‘60’s instrumentals and nostalgic tones, somehow managing to be soft and piercing in delivery. The lyrics were thoughtful, even prophetic at times, as Pecknold lamented his struggles so eloquently you’d think they were yours – and in a way, they were, for his writing addressed relatable topics, including growing older, pining after love, and the various idiosyncrasies that come with being a human being – one listen to “Montezuma” and you’ll notice they can nail all three within a few minutes.

Crack-Up, on the other hand, doesn’t seem geared towards immediately pleasing the masses, or inciting one same stirring feeling of warmth or acceptance for a packed festival crowd. Instead of being a prophetic voice, Pecknold takes the role of quiet (and at times not so quiet) observer, making his comments on the injustices of the world then stepping aside for someone of higher privilege to take command. And, when considering all that’s changed since the release of their sophomore album, listening to Crack-Up just makes sense, more if you consider the current state of affairs to be even a little bit askew, or if you find yourself pining for who you used to be. Even the title, which is taken from an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay of the same name, is a reference to the state of being broken, evaluating everything that has happened up to the point of breaking, and ultimately having to venture back inside yourself in order to come out whole, albeit shaken, on the other side.

Whether you take Pecknold himself, the world, or even your own experiences into consideration when listening is completely up to you – even just regarding Crack-Up as a purely aesthetic album filled with beautiful noise would surely be completely valid in Pecknold’s eyes – there’s that much happening all at once. Of course, there are moments where Pecknold addresses said social injustices – “Cassius, -” narrates his participation in protests following the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and “If You Want To, Keep Time on Me” as well as the title track both address post-election anxiety. All three, however, sound so incredibly heavy in terms of instrumentation and emotion and not easily able to latch on to in terms of a set melody or vocal line, solidifying his desire to not be that higher voice that guides others, and be more of a supporter of those who can do so more eloquently. Gone are the soft, colorful images of working in orchards and sitting in ragged woods – Pecknold instead places you at the edge of the jagged cliffs that appear on the album’s cover, forcing you to think rather than sing along with the melody so comfortably.

Though Pecknold has stated he doesn’t quite understand the over-analyzation of lyrics in music criticism, it’s incredibly difficult not to at least address them in Crack-Up, for they are incredibly and unbelievably beautiful – the main subject of the medieval, rustic tinged “Kept Woman” is addressed as a “rose of the oceanside,” and she’s asked to “widow [her] soul for another mile,” perhaps worn after years of being someone else’s possession. Pecknold claims she is not broken, but instead stronger than he, and, insisting he’s changed, claims they’re bound to be reconciled at some point in the future, revisiting that half-hopeful, half-wistful character once again.

Crack-Up is best, however, when Pecknold is caught up in his own emotions and possessed by real-world nostalgia, so taken with what he’s communicating that the instrumentals all tend to blur together into euphoria. “Fool’s Errand,” perhaps the cleanest and most evocative in terms of composition, are the first of the cinematic tracks, as the jolted, piercing instrumentals simulate galloping horses or crashing waves, while Pecknold’s vocals soar and glide in betwixt them. He is both enchanted by and disgusted with his desire to remain in his current state until he sees a sign, until his “sight dream” comes to mind – the chorus sang and supported instrumentally with such simultaneous chaos and frustration that it begins to sound like divine catharsis. It’s even better when the track has a moment of sudden epiphany – “On Another Ocean (January / June)” begins, as the title says, in January, with Pecknold riddled with suspicion and hesitation, then suddenly transitions to June, where all those questions are treated with sense of self-reliance where Pecknold screams into the void amidst blossoming instrumentals that, in one of the most beautiful phrases of the album – “I won’t bleed out/ if I know me” – back to emphasising the importance of self-indulgence in order to survive in a continuously changing society.

And of course, there’s the nine minute epic “Third of May / Ōdaigahara,” the track that is nostalgia epitomized, the track that is more for Pecknold himself than anyone else – and that’s okay, given just how much honesty and genuine emotion oozes out of every second. It is essentially a track detailing the close friendship of Pecknold and band co-founder Skye Skjelset, and details of him are everywhere, including the title (Skjelset’s birthday falls on May 3rd). It’s an anthem for friendship as well as personal responsibility – Pecknold is “only owed this shape if [he] makes a line to hold” – and both seem to be needed today more than ever.

Crack-Up, though not as immediately warm and inviting as its predecessors, still succeeds in evoking that sense of breathless admiration and intellectual emotion Fleet Foxes began with, as well as the feeling of being lost in time. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have never experienced your own crack-up, the search for something bigger and bolder than yourself is, for the most part, universal.

9.0/10

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photo by Sean Pecknold

Album Review: Alt-J – Relaxer

If there was a singular detail that separates Alt-J from their modern contemporaries, it would have to be the immense thought and care that goes into crafting their specific narratives, often times only immediately accessible to a certain few. Their music is not designed to be a fleeting, faded sound to be heard in the background, but exclusively reserved for those who wish to isolate themselves, peirce its thick, compact flesh, and let the juices freely flow down their chin. Relaxer, the trio’s third full length album, offers the chance for this savage practice tenfold, perhaps even more than their past work. But, true to its name, it also takes the time to release some of the pressure in order to tell wonderfully dense and detailed stories, most of which deal with how people perceive the idea of love and lust, satisfaction and sadness, either as individual concepts or how they interact simultaneously.

Relaxer might be the most obscure and experimental album Alt-J has ever released, as well as the most sensual; it’s almost as if it exists as a perfect amalgamation of their first two albums, taking the moody unpredictability of An Awesome Wave and the delicacy and romance of This Is All Yours. The sensuality, however, is at times placed not in a forgiving landscape, but instead an glitchy, savage wonderland where all rules go out the window, and somehow, Alt- J more than manage to get away with it. In fact, it’s the blatant, brilliant contradiction of their graphic, emotion soaked narratives to the fantastical, effect laden sounds that keeps the madness from gaining too much momentum – their thoughtful minds stabilize their feet that so desperately wish to float into the ether.  Of course, that doesn’t mean their more bizarre thoughts don’t bleed into their creations every now and again, and the ones they’ve chosen to include this time around are their most perplexing and arresting to date.

“In Cold Blood” begins with a slew of binary, arresting, piercing and esoteric, as is their want. While the track sounds bright and energetic, a deeper listen and glance at the lyrics reveals that a man has been killed during a pool party, and that same positive energy turns frantic and chaotic, the horns and glitchy keyboards mingling together in some sort of demented, violent menagerie – and it’s absolutely mesmerizing. “Adeline” is, literally, about a Tasmanian devil that falls in love with a woman after watching her swim, but from the amount of care and passion in both the smooth, milky guitar and piano instrumentals as well as Joe Newman’s vocal swells, you’d think the devil were a complicated being with a highly sensitive, bleeding heart, able to feel such complex emotions as mankind. Again, the listener sees and hears the contrast and concurrent communication between the savage and delicate as the creature must turn away from the object of his desire, for their lives are far too different. At the end of his journey through his emotions, he wishes her well as the urges in his head and heart battle each other, expressed through a thick, dense forest of vocal samples and grandiose instrumentals. The trio even messes around with the Animals’ 1964 hit “House of the Rising Sun,” where instead of a man chained to the world of gambling and alcohol, his father is chained instead, and his mother can’t help but sew jeans to pay for his addiction. As a result it sounds even darker, completely furloughing the miniscule shard of hope the original managed to secure.

The focus on differing perspectives on love and lust is also very much prominent throughout Relaxer, in both its blatant and subtle forms. “Hit Me Like That Snare” is very much in the former category, and exists not only as the British trio’s most bizarre and uncomfortable tracks, but perhaps one of the strangest tracks in the history of alt indie music. After what seems like a cowbell induced orgasm, Newman delivers a vocal line that resembles a drunken, hysteric drawl, with as many euphemisms for sex you can imagine. “Deadcrush” exists in the middle, where Newman and Gus Unger-Hamilton tell us about their “dead crushes,” photographer Elizabeth “Lee” Miller and Anna Bolina, referring to Anne Boleyn. It’s a narrative that hasn’t been touched on much in the past, but this as well as the long, drawn out “Last Year” and “Pleader” are tracks that will only immediately make sense to a certain few, and at first glance, may be far too overwhelming to fully embrace like the others.

The magnum opus of the album must be “3WW,” as it seems to utilize Alt-J’s unique composition style found in Relaxer the most eloquently. Much like the idea of love itself, it is multi-faceted, sounding like a love song one moment and a glitchy, eerie nightmare the next, as it focuses on two separate, but intertwining perspectives. The plucks of guitar simulate the “wayward lad’s” soft, anxious footsteps as he leaves the comfort of his pastoral life to discover love, or at least offer a love “in his own language.” He wishes for something more substantial, for the words “I love you” have become worn with overuse like the “rubbing hands of tourists in Verona,” referring to those who have ruined the patina of the statue of Juliet in Verona, wanting luck in love. The instrumentals become more industrial and sterile as he learns the hard way that others’ ideas of love are not as sincere and meaningful as his – the girls that take advantage of his purity leave him a note the morning after their encounter, asking him with a laugh if it was his “first time.” The instrumentals become quiet and ashamed, but the boy repeats his desire to love another the way he thinks is the most substantial, his morals remaining the last pure, quiet breath into the corrupt world he left everything to experience.

Relaxer is at the least a deep dive into the highly functioning minds of three incredibly talented musicians and songwriters, at the most a strange, yet rewarding third installment of a musical project that will never be replicated.

8.7/10

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photo by Gabriel Green / big hassle

Album Review: Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog

Over the years, Mac DeMarco has become a series of contradictions; he’s either the talented slacker, the goofy sentimentalist, or the rich bum, titles so securely attached that even the mention of his name triggers the smell of cigarette smoke. Being the extremely confident, carefree person that he portrays himself to be, he finds ways to make his cartoonish media derived image work in his favor, or, even better, disqualify his so called “slacker” persona entirely through his skillful, complex melodies and genuine, poetic lyrics. His first three albums almost perfectly follow the growth and maturation of a human being, complete with the musings of young suburban life, the idea of newfound fame, and the concept of love as well as all of its derivatives. His newest full length This Old Dog follows that succession with the deeper thoughts and desires that come with growing older, and expresses in more muted tones what seems to be DeMarco’s final form – his inner self, free of outside opinion.

The first thing you’ll notice about This Old Dog is that it is considerably quieter than DeMarco’s past work, both in the technical sense as well as an appropriate extension of what the album represents – wistful emotion, steady maturation, and coming to terms with things you’d rather just forget. It’s also necessary to point out how much of the album utilizes acoustic instruments and simple composition rather than purely relying on complex guitar melodies and atmospheric synth. Each track feels unbelievably somber yet strangely hopeful, a combination of emotions that never quite existed in DeMarco’s repertoire until now. The giddy, frivolous demeanor he assumed throughout the years which brilliantly offset the hazy, languid sound of 2, Salad Days, and Another One now also appears to have been a wall he built to put off writing about the demons that haunted him, one of which being the strained relationship with his father.

“My Old Man” expresses DeMarco’s fear of becoming his father as he grows older, his voice hung in a surreal, dreamlike state that contradicts the nightmare he explains. Closer “Watching Him Fade Away” is perhaps the single most heartbreaking song DeMarco has ever written, and it’s incredibly difficult to listen to his voice sound pained and teary-eyed as he explains just how hard it is to watch his relationship with his father dissolve into nothing, though he assures us that they barely knew each other. He sounds tired more than anything, as if he faced reality far too late, which makes it the perfect closing track. We all have to face our innermost demons eventually, and DeMarco shows us that its better to do it now rather than later. “Still Beating” even proves to fans of his goofy demeanor, carefree antics, and wacky behavior that “honey, [he] cries too/ you better believe it.”

Needless to say, the honesty embedded DeMarco’s composition and songwriting is the highlight on This Old Dog, and it’s absolutely beautiful.  “Dreams from Yesterday” is tender and delicate with a strange familiarity, his voice expressing through muted guitar that no amount of sadness can bring back your youth, nor the dreams you once had. “One More Love Song” utilizes the crackling falsetto croon of “Still Together,” and “One Another” is Jim Croce like, with upbeat vocals and colorful guitar plucks.” The title track assures us that DeMarco, now 27, isn’t about to forget all the wonderful things that will happen in the future.

It’s a far cry from singing about cigarettes, that’s for sure.

8.0/10

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photo by Coley Brown

Album Review: Hoops – Routines

More than anything, Indiana-based indie trio Hoops seem to understand the euphoric feeling of summer, considering their warm and addictive chillwave aesthetic perfected over the past few years. Their self-titled EP released just last summer featured moody, lo-fi guitar powered gems, all remarkably smooth and clear despite the fact that it was recorded primitively in their homes. Routines is the result of of that same aesthetic mixed with the wonders of a proper studio where that sun-drenched sound gets the depth and richness it deserves, and the boys get a chance to better flesh out their wistful narratives.

Considering that genres like chillwave pride themselves on being carefree and loose, Routines slyly attempts to sound perfectly imperfect at times. Even though being a perfectionist with a such a finicky genre might be detrimental with other groups, Hoops seems to pull it off mainly because its members are dedicated to constantly discovering their own sound through constant experimentation, with this group as well as their own projects – founder Drew Auscherman explores garage pop in his side project Permit, and bassist Kevin Krauter recently released one of the most gorgeous, delicate EPs we’ve heard in quite some time – allowing that time spent tinkering on their music to come off as charming rather than unnecessarily tedious.

Hoops are at their absolute best when a strong, vibrant guitar melody weaves itself through the rest of a track’s instrumentation and takes the helm by force, with electrifying opener “Rules” leaving the listener no time to think about anything other than the rambunctious medley of instrumentals that drive the sound. As if the echoed effect on the opening melody wasn’t enough for unyielding attention, the distorted, sour effect during the bridge triggers nostalgia, a feeling that’s always underrated in our book. “On Top” has its own delightful guitar morsel after the chorus, the bouncy guitars almost changing color as they play on. One main grievance, however, was the number of tracks that sounded like filler, a mere derivative of the ones that came before or after. Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can do before that same hazy sound can start to appear gratuitous, with the softer, more emotionally powered tracks rudely left in the minority. Tracks like “Underwater Theme” add to the band’s versatility, considering emotion is one of those concepts incredibly hard to fake – and the band does it so delicately that we wished there were more moments where that vulnerability was more potent. As if Hoops read our minds, closer “Worry” succeeds in being the most sincere track on Routines, based on the sultry, metallic sounding synth chimes as well as the guitar twangs reminiscent of dream-pop past. The deep throaty vocals offset the smoky vibe of the instrumentals, but also introduces the equally hazy saxophone shrieks that perfectly seals everything inside flawlessly.

Summer is often thought to be this euphoric, carefree time of the year, filled with nothing but sunshine, happiness, and the occasional fling, but many forget the lonely side – where the constant warmth, once exhilarating, can quickly turn commonplace. With Routines, Hoops do their part to soundtrack both of these phenomenons, and the result is wonderfully inviting.

7.0/10

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photo courtesy of artist

Album Review: Tennis – Yours Conditionally

A few years after their whimsical, nautical inspired debut Cape Dory, Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley’s newest release as Tennis had them right back where they started, writing songs in between sailing the open seas. Their aesthetic began and slowly evolved with fast paced tunes loosely based on 60’s love songs, evoking a youthful glow that shone through Moore’s bright vocals and Riley’s addictive guitar melodies, and now that saltwater streaked sound is back, more passionate than ever. Yours Conditionally – their fourth full length album to date – has the husband-wife team sounding less like a quirky caricature of sunny guitar pop and instead more sincere, uninfluenced by outside forces, unafraid to fully embrace their real emotions.

Half of Yours Conditionally was written on dry land, and the other half was composed while Moore and Riley were sailing from San Diego to the Sea of Cortez, the journey perhaps contributing to the album’s themes of bittersweet loneliness and detachment from the outside world. The combination of the stress in constantly manning a boat as well as the divine romance of being alone with your significant other on the open seas made for ten absolutely gorgeous tracks. Of course, the isolation also made for some intense soul searching on Moore’s part, and she’s even made clear that “lyrically, it is a consideration of [her] relation to the world as a woman, as an artist whose work is transformed by another’s experience of it, and the conflicting needs that arise from these intersections.” Musically, Riley provides instrumentals that act as both stabilizers and enhancers, but Moore’s lyrics and vocals provide warmth and sincere introspection – they personify a body and the heart that powers it respectively.

The songs, a careful concoction of love and cynicism, explore the complexities and intricacies of feminism from a married standpoint, where you can experience conflicting feelings of devoting yourself to your husband and wanting to be a mother, while at the same time trying so desperately to be your own person and pursue your innermost desires. “Matrimony,” Moore’s childlike, lovesick account of her wedding day, contains fuzzy drums so distorted it’s hard not to associate it with a pulsating heart. “Fields of Blue,” our favorite track off the album, is inspired by their ship’s log, where, as Moore told NPR, she often accounted for her own mental state instead of the whereabouts of their location, and where she and Riley often took appointed shifts, where one would manage the boat while the other slept. The idea of being responsible for your partner’s well being while at their most vulnerable was what inspired the sugary sweet sound of the track, where Moore unashamedly coos in the midst of Riley’s reciprocal bright guitar that she “cannot help herself” in loving the one that she does – “what’s the use in living without?”

The album, both vocally and instrumentally, is also a subtle nod to the masters of the 60’s and 70’s – “Please Don’t Ruin This For Me” sounding especially ABBA-esque in its pastel-tinged composition – and the delicate nature of both “10 Minutes 10 Years” as well as “Island Music” are no exception, both tracks where Moore gives her best vocal performance to date. The muted aura and echoed vocal construction of the latter is absolutely magical, evoking the sort of tracks that would play in smoke filled bars with dimmed lighting, a hazy ballad that’s designed to latch onto the frayed bits of your soul. “In The Morning I’ll Be Better” also evokes that retro aesthetic but in a much more euphoric sense, while “Baby Don’t Believe” enters funk territory, Riley’s guitar slipping and sliding in between subdued piano tones.

There’s no one moment in Yours Conditionally where it truly matches the jangly, upbeat frill of their past albums – the sheer amount of emotion and passion that bleeds through each track requires some effort from the listener to really feel all this album has to offer. However, that’s what makes it such a unique album – that, as well as the refreshing notion that Moore, though happily married, is still very much her own person, one not afraid to analyze herself and her emotions repeatedly in order to figure out just how much of herself she is willing to share with the people in her life. We’re just thankful Tennis is sharing with us too.

8.0/10

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photo via noisey

Album Review: Temples – Volcano

Temples’ debut album Sun Structures unleashed their personal brand of chunky, addictive psych-pop on the world, all performed in 70’s friendly haircuts and equally enamored uniforms. The release was a cognizant nod to their inspirations, but still managed to showcase their own little quirks and techniques, and as a result, the album was clean and inviting like a kaleidoscope, constantly changing its youthful color with a mere flick of a wrist. In the Kettering quartet’s sophomore album Volcano, that youth and color appears less like the main attraction and more like a background component to an edgier, more intriguing aesthetic.

The biggest difference between Sun Structures and Volcano is the increased amount of technical experimentation, as well as the unyielding focus in mastering those experimental flourishes. Not to say that the debut didn’t have its fair share of ambition – so much so critics accused frontman James Bagshaw of placing more effort in achieving that perfect ‘70’s sound rather than create something fresh and modern – but here, it sounds much more innovative, more representative of the band’s mixture of youth and skill. It’s chunky, with hazy walls of sound instead of relying on bright, cookie cutter melodies. It seems that over the years, the quartet figured out how to combine the exhilaration that comes with neo-psychedelia with the focus of the modern age, and the result is, at times, otherworldly and strangely evocative.

Each track tends to follow a highly fantastical and whimsical theme; “Born into the Sunset” has an intro reminiscent of retro animation sounds, offset by background shrieks and euphoric synth, while “How Would You Like to Go” is dark and ethereal, almost like part of an art exhibit where sheets are slowly pulled off the main attraction, yellow beams of light peeking out from underneath them. One small grievance with these tracks, however, is that Temples seem to have a set structure in their compositions, with them all being mostly middle-heavy; their most addictive melody or vocal track is sometimes a feat to reach due to the aforementioned walls of sound, which does tend to come complimentary with the desire to fire every piston in their technical repertoire. “Mystery of Pop” and “Open Air, however, are the outliers, both shimmering, spacey romps from beginning to end.

Opener and supersonic lead single “Certainty” has Bagshaw revisiting his signature elastic croon, the falsetto that erupts after the chorus appearing several more times throughout the album. In fact, Bagshaw is exponentially more transcendental and impassioned in his vocal performance this time around, not to mention versatile, allowing himself to be the starry-eyed dreamer in anthem “Strange or Be Forgotten” as well as the quirky romantic in the playful “In My Pocket.” However, no other track more brilliantly showcases the dual power and soft qualities of his vocals than “I Wanna Be Your Mirror,” where they intertwine seamlessly with the bouncy guitar and scuzzy bassline before dissolving into the flutes and chimes surrounding them.

Volcano matches the unpredictable, bubbling energy of its namesake, with all of the intrigue and none of the paralyzing fear. It’s looser yet somehow more focused, bubbly and playful but with a darker, insanely irresistible ulterior motive, like sunlight hiding behind a dark velvet cloak. Most of all, however, it shows Temples’ ability to grow and mature, as well as more efficiently use the fiery passion and tenacity that comes with youth to their advantage.

8.0/10

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photo by Ed Miles

Album Review: Tim Darcy – Saturday Night

As the frontman of art punk band Ought, Tim Darcy is no stranger to vulnerability or sensitivity; in fact, his lyrics and the melodies that escape his guitar seem to feed off their presence. Ought, of course, being a band party born out of protest, perfectly rides the line of being intellectual but constantly pissed off, and Darcy’s contribution is similar; the music is anxious and jittery, filled with chunky guitars and meticulous basslines, and Darcy’s lyrics, yelped out with a tone existing somewhere between vitriol and inquisitiveness, touch on existentialism and human nature, as well as the monotony of everyday life. In Saturday Night, Darcy’s experimental debut solo album, he becomes a human conduit for emotion, and, as a result, the vulnerability appears less like divine annoyance and more like a lovesick serenade.

Saturday Night was recorded around the same time as Ought’s sophomore album Sun Coming Down, though some of the songs that appear on the solo album were materializing well before the creation of the group itself. Obviously, the songs are much more introspective, perhaps a result of allowing ideas to flow freely rather than attach them to any specific sentiment, politically charged or not, as was the case in Ought. Of course, there are a few overarching themes in Saturday Night – toxic masculinity, vulnerability, gender dynamics – expressed through half-fluid, half-disjointed instrumentals and more experimental effects. The title track begins with a bow across guitar strings, resulting in a just barely tolerable shriek before the splash of drums and deep, brooding vocals set in. It feels lost in time, as if it is the entirety of a performance art piece, especially when Darcy’s voice shouts into the void in a desperate attempt to make sense of his own existence. As a result, the album can sound self-indulgent at times, but then again, a debut solo album deserves no fault in that regard. “Found My Limit” follows that same hollowed out, eerie tone, its repeated phrase like a mantra learned over years of pain and slow realizations.

Some of the best tracks on the album, however, are the ones steeped in thick, chunky guitar and stark, confident vocals. “You Felt Comfort” is heavy, upbeat garage rock at its finest, while “Saint Germain” reads like an existential poem, and, almost appropriately, seems to unravel and stretch towards the edges of time the more it plays on. Darcy finds ways to explain his artistic process in this track as well, playing the philosopher and explaining that “creation is the loudest screech of escape/ which explains why mine sounds like a scream.”  “Tall Glass of Water,” the obvious stunner of the album, has Darcy’s voice so expertly nestled between rampant, electrified guitar, this time with lyrics analyzing his own abilities to muster on and understand himself, asking “if at then end of the river/there is more river/would you dare to swim again?,” then answering saying “surely I will stay, and I am not afraid/I went under once, I’ll go under once again.”

Needless to say, Darcy is as much a poet as he is a musician, and there are lyrics in Saturday Night that will stay with you long after the album is through, although it’s up to you to decide which to hold onto. Given Darcy’s unique voice, you might have to listen a number of times to truly grasp the essence of what he is communicating – one of the few grievances I have with the album – but once you do, the music becomes something else entirely. He  also dedicates three tracks to Joan of Arc, fascinated by her passion and constant destruction of the patriarchy, his most telling line of her personality being “Joan hasn’t got a gun/ but she’ll change the tide to bury you.”

Though he fulfills many roles – the intellectual protagonist, the enraptured existentialist, the hopeful cynic – there’s a part of me that wants to leave Saturday Night with  Tim Darcy being the lovesick, byronic hero he portrays himself to be in “Still Waking Up,” perhaps the most delicate track off the album. The saccharine sweet ballad is pure and unpretentious in both its Americana-esque instrumentation as well as the lyrics, and I still can’t get over the fact that he can sing the phrase “release the hounds” and still manage to sound like a hopeless romantic. It’s the simplest song off the album, but the most indicative of Darcy’s attempts to understand himself, and, by extension, the world in which he exists.

8.0/10

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photo by Shawn Brackbill

Year in Review: The 10 Best Albums of 2016

Even though we seem to say this every year, the sheer quality of music that was released these past twelve months has been absolutely stunning. So many deeply personal stories were shared in the form of pained, honeyed voices and passionate instrumentals, through thoughtful lyrics and complex, ambitious compositions. There were hopeless romantics and stoic cynics, expressing their desire for love as well as their disgust for its intricacies. While it was impossible to keep up with all the albums (and EPs!) released this year, the ten listed here were chosen based on their emotional dispositions, meaning that they were honest, raw, and unapologetic, never shying away from vulnerability and sensitivity, whether that meant sharing soft, sweeping ballads, nostalgia-tinged odes, or desperate shouts into the void, surrounded by aggressive guitars and shards of synth (and even though they’re numbered, many of these could easily be swapped around; I know I never had one set emotion this past year). Even though 2016 was not the best of years socially or politically, it was a beautiful one for music; unforgiving pressure makes for the most magnificent diamonds.

10. Ice Choir – Designs in Rhythm

Kurt Feldman’s newest release as Ice Choir was a gorgeous journey into a sugar-soaked digital world, where he brilliantly toyed with 80’s electronica, glittering synth, and even a little bit of the humorously controversial vaporwave genre. Though the genre is has the nature to be cold and standoffish, Designs in Rhythm was the exact opposite, as tracks like “Windsurf” and “Unprepared” were far too whimsical to be considered anything but warm and euphoric. Feldman’s voice is soft and lush, and he controls it well within the context of his instrumentals, perhaps due to his past work in sound design. It’s an album that lets you make what you want of it, though we doubt it will be anything other than pure joy.

photo by Ebru Yildiz

9. Weyes Blood – Front Row Seat To Earth

When Natalie Mering’s third full-length album as Weyes Blood was released, I remember listening to it in full over coffee, then immediately going to purchase a physical copy at the record store across the street. The vocals were so gorgeously haunting that I couldn’t get either “Used to Be” or “Do You Need My Love” out of my head for the next few days. Her voice is so potent and emotionally arresting that it almost exists as a physical entity, reverberating freely in the hollows and spaces that the instrumentals repeatedly create. The push and pull between loneliness, isolation, love, and desire made for nine absolutely breathtaking tracks, existing somewhere between the past and the present.

photo by Katie Miller/via npr

8. Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp

Psychopomp was an album fueled by heartbreak and mourning, yet somehow seemed to have a tinge of hope nestled somewhere underneath the sadness. Michelle Zauner devoted her debut album as Japanese Breakfast to her mother – who recently passed away from cancer – and her presence is everywhere, from the somber “In Heaven,” detailing the grief and frustration she (and her dog) felt days after her mother’s death, and even to “Everybody Wants to Love You,” the bright, sunshine streaked blaze of joy. “Triple 7” showed off Zauner’s poetic songwriting, and the line “call out my name/ like something from a bottom of a well” stayed with me long after the album was over. Sure, it’s an album soaked in grief, but there are moments where the celebration of life was emphasized more than anything else, and that devotion was beautiful.

photo by Phobymo

7. Frank Ocean – Blonde

Blonde is an incredibly important album is because of its complete and utter devotion to emotion, how it refuses to shy away from vulnerability and refuses to suppress sensitivity in its correlation to Ocean’s “boys don’t cry” aesthetic. As a result, the album sounds gorgeously intimate in its muted, muffled instrumentals and deeply poetic in its lyrics, with Ocean voicing his deepest desires in love in tracks like the fantastical “Seigfried” and the nostalgic, heartfelt “Ivy.” Even in the most upbeat tracks like “Nights” and “Solo,” there’s no mistaking the intense feeling put into the creation of this album, nor the passion of Ocean himself, who sounds as if he is breaking into tiny pieces as he pours out his soul. He seems to understand the importance of feeling everything in this world so deeply and intensely – even the little things – and the way he manipulates various emotions throughout Blonde is nothing short of brilliant.

photo courtesy of artist/npr

6. Mitski – Puberty 2

Happiness and sadness have reoccurring roles during adolescence and young adult life, often times occurring far too frequently and haphazardly to live normally. In Mitski Miyawaki’s fourth and most personal album to date, she battles depression, anxiety, and other insecurities bravely and succinctly, with her lyrics acting both as shouts into the void (“A Burning Hill,” “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars”) as well as a fiery balm to soothe her wounds (“Fireworks”). She also discusses love and the lack thereof, with “Happy” and “Your Best American Girl” being the two most stunning tracks in her entire career due to their intense, raw instrumentals and subtle, soft vocals. Although you have to search for it, Puberty 2 does have moments where both happiness and sadness coexist almost harmoniously, to the point where it no longer becomes a place for Mitski herself to voice her frustrations, but also something in which the listener can relate with as well.

photo by Ebru Yildiz

5. Von Sell – Von Sell EP

Though this is technically not an album, Von Sell’s debut EP has enough finesse and feeling to be mistaken for one, chock full of complex, intricate compositions and eccentric lyrics. It’s mixed thoughtfully and masterfully, a quality incredibly important in crafting a successful electronic pop album, where aspects like vocals and vocal effects can become distorted and murky. Here, his vocals are powerful and vibrant, sounding commanding and striking in “Names,” and soft and gentle in “Miss Me.” He even plays around with his own creations; “Ivan (Revisited)” is a gorgeous retake of the original, adding in a jangly guitar riff to keep things loose and carefree. At its core, Von Sell is an album conveying differing aspects of the human condition, and its simply gorgeous.

photo via impose magazine

4. Night Moves – Pennied Days

Night Moves’ sophomore album Pennied Days is an absolutely wonderful example of the eccentric country-psych genre, consisting of pained, honeyed voices and bold, sweeping instrumentals, where heavy themes of desire and passion are expressed without restraint. Frontman John Pelant has the kind of magical voice that can change in tone with a flick of the wrist to soak rapidly into its surrounding instrumentals – it’s energetic and elastic in “Staurolite Stroll,” focused in “Border on Border,” and soft in “Kind Luck.” The theatric, atmospheric “Carl Sagan” also had one of the most stunning music videos released this year. As far as their instrumentals go, they go all out; there’s rarely a lull in the album or a spot where there could be more girth. There’s always some sort of gorgeous riff, or a vocal harmony, or a deep rooted drum beat filling the space, but it still manages to sound transcendental, a living thing succumbed to passion.

photo courtesy of domino

3. Pillar Point – Marble Mouth

Scott Reitherman’s self-titled debut as Pillar Point is one of our absolute favorite albums to listen to in the colder months, due to its moody, complex synth as well as the warmth of the vocals (“Touch” has been on the top of our playlist since October). However, it can sound restrained at times, timid in its construction, not wanting to overstep its bounds. Marble Mouth is the result of Reitherman overcoming that fear, and it sounds vibrant, euphoric, yet still conveying his intense skill as a producer. “Strange Brush” is quirky and bold, its vocal effects puncturing and dissolving into the underlying beat like watercolor paint, while the synth in “Black Fly on a White Wall” wobbles and whines like something alive and kicking. “Underground” and “Dove” revisit that moody past persona, showing that Reitherman still values emotion and feeling above all else, regardless of how much color reflects off his work.

photo courtesy of artist

2. Whitney – Light Upon the Lake

Drummer and vocalist Julian Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek have created a truly beautiful masterpiece in the formation of Whitney, a band vintage in sound but modern in feeling. Their mellow, 60’s and 70’s inspired sounds combine aspects of psych, americana, and pure guitar pop, with Ehrlich’s gorgeously shrill voice and Kakacek’s nimble fingers at the reign. The title track is muted and shadowed, and despite being a seven member band, shows off their delicacy and intricacy, as well as their restraint and respect for past musical styles. The theme of the amalgamation of love and loss exists not as something somber, but something in which to derive beauty – “No Woman” and “Dave’s Song” show that as well as meticulous instrumentation. It’s more than a mere “heartbreak” album – to call it that would be selling it short – it’s something otherworldly and rife with feeling, from a band that know the meaning of closeness.

photo by Laura Harvey

1. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

Will Toledo is the personification of succumbing to your emotions. There’s never a moment on Teens of Denial where he’s not clawing deep into his heart or gouging out his soul; though it’s painful and uncomfortable, these are the things you need to do in order to conjure up something pure and honest. It’s an album fueled by depression and anxiety, yet it never sounds crude or self-indulgent; rather, the fact that Toledo can operate within the vicious, isolated world of depression (“Fill in the Blank”) as well as provide dense, sprawling narratives and stunning, meticulous guitar melodies to intelligently express that depression shows his immense talent as an artist as well as his nature as a human being. His lyrics are direct, simultaneously obsessed and repulsed by society, showing what it means to be a cynical, yet fearful twenty-something teetering on the edge of life. “Vincent” is piercing and volatile in its phrasing, “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)” is milder and more concerned with relationships, and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” is the definition of dense, its eleven minute duration full of references and the most honest expression of fear of being an adult in a world that never bothered to teach you how to be one. It sounds like the beautiful expulsion of ideas kept in the mind and soul for far too long, the result of emotions finally being set free. It’s ambitious, intelligent, and often too much too fast, but it’s still human, through and through. And it all began in the backseat of a car.

photo by Cecilia Corsano-Leopizzi

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EP Review: Kadhja Bonet – The Visitor

When Kadhja Bonet released the gorgeous track “Honeycomb” last year, we were absolutely mesmerized, both from Bonet’s unparalleled, dynamic vocals as well as its perfect production. The seamless, dreamlike amalgamation of bold, powerful jazz and peaceful classical instrumentals highlighting Bonet’s honeyed voice sounded like something from another world, or even a whole other plane of existence. In The Vistor, Bonet’s first release since signing to Fat Possum, that dream-like aesthetic is presented in varying intensities throughout eight stunning tracks, packing in as much wonder and whimsy until it threatens to burst at the seams.

Each track on The Visitor is rich and luxurious, and beautifully feeds off of its own individual energy, never yielding the specific emotion it introduces until the song dissolves into the next completely. However, the EP still feels cohesive and fluid, considering the tracks’ overall otherworldly nature. The tracks themselves somehow simultaneously sound like sherbet-infused fairytales, soundtracks to various mythological epics, romances, and tragedies, and scores to a thousand love stories, mostly due to the complex instrumental arrangements. This isn’t surprising considering Bonet’s formal training is in classical music, and the majority of the time, it’s done spectacularly.

After an experimental, electronic-tinged introduction suitable for a more psychedelic-centered album, “Honeycomb” erupts, and Bonet’s voice immediately swells and flows with intense purpose and determination. Her lyrics are uniquely sweet and evocative, comparing herself to a “humble bee” bringing pollen to her lover’s lips in a thick, honeyed drawl. It ends with her vocals melting into a sludge of synth, providing a strange juxtaposition of tones. “The Visitor” is by far the most complex track that appears on the EP, where Bonet basically shows off her production chops. In fact, the individual effects and production quirks of each song add to their character as well – the harpsichord-style instrumentals that open “Fairweather Friend” provide brightness and color to Bonet’s more relaxed oohs, while the more baroque, renaissance style orchestral interludes in “Portraits of Tracy” give it a grandiose feel. However, the most stunning use of this technique appears in “Nobody Other,” our favorite track off the album. It stands apart from the rest of the EP due to its simplistic, comparably minimal composition, as well as the gorgeous way Bonet’s crystallized voice appears more muted and delicate in order to accurately portray her genuine romantic intentions. Again, it almost sounds three-dimensional, with its soft instrumentals floating and swaying like a breezy summer afternoon, the flute flourishes that appear every so often simulating bluebirds chirping in the trees.

It’s worth mentioning that Bonet handled a large majority of the writing, arranging, performing, and producing of this EP, which is incredibly impressive in and of itself due to its sheer intricacy and technical complexity. Because of this, The Visitor cannot simply be written off as a compilation of otherworldly musings or a series of happenstance hallucinations, but instead a testament to mortal emotion, considering the time it has spent growing and maturing in thoughtful human hands.

8.0/10

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photo courtesy of fat possum records

EP Review: Von Sell – Von Sell

Brooklyn-based artist David Von Sell creates the kind of unique electronic pop that surely deserves its own genre, considering the complexity of its composition as well as the thoughtful way in which its ideas of love and passion are presented. His aesthetic has slowly revealed itself to be the perfect amalgamation of the addictive nature of the synthetic with a living, beating heart, and the electronic pop phenom has now solidified it in seven breathtaking tracks.

Before settling in Brooklyn, Von Sell began his journey while growing up in Hamburg, Germany, creating bedroom pop at home in his late teens. He has attended the British Academy of New Music and the Humboldt University in Berlin, as well as the Berklee College of Music, which simultaneously portrays Von Sell’s wunderkind-esque nature as well as explains how he’s able to create such complex, memorable sounds. He emerged back in 2014 with the boisterous, elaborate track “Ivan,” which was so stylistically dense that it ended up sounding like a bright menagerie of effects and techniques all rolled into one – glitchy, shimmering synth effortlessly floated in arpeggios above thick, splashy drum beats, and the strong vocals became their unrelenting, binding force, locking the listener in place. Throughout the year, other angles of his persona were revealed through additional tracks, including the softer, more emotional “I Insist” and the experimental, yet oddly delicate “Stay.” Both of these tracks have now seemingly found their direct counterparts within the new EP, being the sugary, infatuated “Miss Me,” and the blatantly human “Names,” respectively. The first pairing both sound beautifully desperate, emulating desire with screeching synth and soul baring lyrics (“come on and hurt me now/ you know I know you want to”), and “Miss Me” even tends to echo the soul and intensity of 90’s R&B. The second pairing both shudder with synth, although in “Names,” it eventually drops out to focus in on an evocative piano interlude where it sounds enraptured and possessed, a rare hollow in the track where it seems like countless epiphanies could take place. There’s a part in John Milton’s L’Allegro where the narrator, in his prayers to the goddess Mirth, wishes to be overwhelmed by a song “with wanton heed and giddy cunning/ the melting voice through mazes running/ untwisting all the chains that ty/ the hidden soul of harmony.” Perhaps it’s merely because my personal studies of Milton and my admiration of Von Sell have both occurred at the same time, but these brief lines have repeatedly come to mind when listening to this little spot within “Names,” possibly our favorite track off the EP.

One of the best parts about Von Sell as a whole is that it’s mixed masterfully. Each layer of sound and every effect can be heard without distortion or risk of them blending together, which really makes a difference in an electronic pop album, where essential aspects like vocals can often become distorted and unrecognizable. Von Sell’s vocals not only ring crystal clear, but also remain one of the most potent and powerful aspects of each track – it rises and falls in “I Insist,” swells and expands in “Names,” enters a bright falsetto in “Miss Me,” and adds to the experimental, cinematic quality of stunning opener “Energystabs.” The EP also includes a reworking of “Ivan,” where a jangly guitar melody is inserted seamlessly after the first chorus and ethereal vocals are added towards the end, making it even more of a multi-faceted masterpiece.

When listening to these songs, it’s easy to forget that they’re the result of a single person, someone delicately orchestrating electronic pop in such a way that it ultimately equates with pure human emotion and passion rather than noise meant to soundtrack a dance floor. Von Sell has changed what it means to operate within the confines of the electronic pop genre, showing that it doesn’t always have to be vapid or blatantly synthetic. Instead, his music remains intrinsically human, and, through these seven tracks, beautifully expresses the importance in letting the heart overpower the mind every now and again.

9.7/10

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photo by Jen Maler