Bully Sharpen Their Attack On Losing

With Losing, the second full-length release from Nashville-based indie rockers Bully, frontwoman Alicia Bognanno has thrust a handful of simple, effective, relatable songs into the world, addressing matters ranging from a diverse array of relationships to mental health. In the fluctuation between matters of the heart and the head, perhaps the most striking through-line of this album is, as Bognanno sings on “Seeing It,” how it is quite a “blurry place to be / Stuck in your own body.”

Bognanno cut her audio engineering chops at Chicago’s Electrical Audio studio and has masterfully engineered all of Bully’s releases. I’m sure plenty of studios—such as and including EA—can be wonderful places to work, but there’s also no doubt in my mind that the cards are stacked against any female recording engineer who steps behind the board. Bognanno’s resume, in addition to the poignant lyricism we hear on Losing supports the idea that being a person “stuck” in their own body, getting “anxious too” is hard, but being a woman is a certain, special, other kind of hard, too.

Notably, these twelve songs are not all explicitly political—or even overtly feminist. There are few details to flesh out the exact circumstances of the interpersonal events described in songs like “Focused,” (“And I still remember / What you went through when we were sixteen”) or “Blame” (“Think we both know what’s been going on / Can we make this quick?”). Nonetheless, even without the complex narratives that are often hallmarks of albums dealing in so many fraught topics, it’s easy to see how Bognanno’s songwriting slams up against social and political forces—some unfair, others just bewildering. When the album begins with a one-two punch explicitly calling out her sexuality, ambivalence, and frustration, specifically when she sings, “Cut my hair / I feel the same / Masturbate / I feel the same,” you know we’re about to get right up close to the tension between this feeling of being “stuck”—both in body and mind.

In “Blame,” for example, Bognanno tackles the catch-22 so many women will find familiar, where stoicism or confidence is perceived as bitchiness: “And I wonder sometimes you think / That you’ve created a monster / A bitch who can’t even blink.” Then the chorus stands up and announces, “fuck it”, as Bognanno declares: “Can’t keep my mouth shut / Can’t keep my mouth shut, I won’t / If you don’t want to hear it / If you don’t want to hear it then don’t.

Bognanno’s lyrics are sharp and insightful, but musically Losing stays impressively close to its simple and effective mission. Bognanno’s style is fuzzy, but she lets the layers in her songs expand to fill their own spaces. As on “You Could Be Wrong,” where guitar sounds crumple and get drowned out for a verse, only to ring clearly through a chorus.

Left and right over the past week, it’s been hard to it’s been hard to find a conversation about Losing that won’t make reference to the parade of 90’s greats who also made their ways through Electrical—The Breeders and The Pixies, Nirvana, etc., and with good reason. In fact, Losing and other Bully recordings are mostly recorded using analog instead of digital technology, which contributes to that 90’s sound. “Feel the Same” leads the album off with a persistent, shoegaze-y intro that descends into smooth genre-blending guitar screams. Conversely, there’s a contemporary, upbeat optimism peeking through the grungy vibes of the crunchy guitar on “Either Way.” Then there are pop songs like “Not the Way” that just plain work.

Losing also notably marks Bully’s departure from Columbia subsidiary Star Time International and onto Sub Pop. (Apparently no “Loser”/Losing puns intended here.) The through-line of the band persists, however, and my personal favorite song on Losing recalls the best of what has always cemented Bully as a great band. Reminiscent of “I Remember,” a leading single off 2015’s Feels Like, my favorite song on Losing, “Kills to be Resistant,” is a singable, screamable post-punk anthem. And I can’t speak for any other women, necessarily, but something to scream along with is just what this girl needed lately.

Losing is out now, and Bully tour dates can be found here.

What I’m Listening To: October 2017

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice: This album between the Melbourne-based Barnett and the Philly-based Vile is a minor work in both of their catalogues, but it’s a lot of fun. There’s a few playful originals – “Over Everything” and “Continental Breakfast” – covers of each other’s songs – Vile’s “Peepin’ Tomboy” becomes “Peepin’ Tom” here, similarly, “Out of the Woodwork” is graced with Vile’s signature drawl (and some great Barnett backing vocals). The covers are great too – Barnett’s cover of her partner Jen Cloher’s “Fear is Like a Forest” and the album-closing take of Belly’s 1993 track “Untogether”. It’s a fun, unserious record that somehow only feels like it could come from these two. It’s a hang you’ll want to feel a part of.

St. Vincent – Masseduction: Annie Clark’s fifth record under the St. Vincent name again blows the debate wide open as to if she’s created her best record. Each record seems to build on the last, and this one might somehow be the most obtuse and accessible yet. It’s a diverse collection of neon-hued pop – the slinky “Los Ageless”, title track “Masseduction” with the lyrics “I can’t turn off what turns me on” to the devastating “Happy Birthday Johnny” and piano ballad “New York”. The arrangements are just as dense as they have been on previous releases, but here they feel streamlined and tighter. Highfalutin it is not. It’s St. Vincent, David Bowie and sex filtered through hell.

Margo Price – All American Made: Price’s 2016 album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter positioned the Aledo, Illinois native as one of brightest country stars with a sound that hews towards traditional twang with lyrics that convey personal heartbreak and devastation. Here, the tone is a little more political, as there are songs that confront sexism and wage inequality. It’s an assured LP, a great new chapter in her story – “A Little Pain,” “Weakness” (the title track from the EP of the same name from earlier this year) as well as tone-perfect duet with Willie Nelson called “Learning to Lose” are standouts. Every new Margo Price record unfolds her story just a little more. We learn as she does.

Hiss Golden Messenger Find Hope in the Dark on Hallelujah Anyhow

It’s hard to feel good about the world right now for a variety of reasons. Take your pick: politics, natural disasters and the simple passage of time claiming many of our heroes are just a few examples. It would be easy to be resigned and depressed about all of this, but thankfully there are reminders of some light peering through the darkness. M.C. Taylor seems to think that, or that’s the idea you get on Hiss Golden Messenger’s latest album, Hallelujah Anyhow.

Released under a year after last year’s magnificent Heart Like a Levee (and the deluxe edition bonus album Vestapol), Taylor and company return with a looser sounding collection of songs than the more pristine sounds of its predecessor. That’s not to say it’s any less gorgeous. Opener “Jenny of the Roses” kicks things off rather breezily, but sets the tone pretty quickly as he sings, apparently quoting the subject of the song: “I’ve never been/Afraid of the darkness/it’s just a different kind of light.” This theme continues with a song succinctly titled “Lost Out in the Darkness,” buoyed by an insistent kick drum and choppy acoustic guitars. Harmonica bleeds in and out of the song as Taylor sings something that sounds optimistic – “I’ve been waiting for you patiently/I’m trying to be hopeful for you, brother” and “If you carry the good news/show me/I’ve been looking for a sign down among us.

The instrumentation feels more like a delivery device for Taylor’s searching than it has previously – there’s simply much more that needs to be heard this time. It’s an album that’s feels like shades of color than a progression of sound. The songs here sooth in their autumnal hues – “Gulfport You’ve Been on My Mind,” and “Domino (Time Will Tell)” feel like sunsets, and “John the Gun” reappears here, revived from a serene acoustic take first found on Vestapol, fleshed out with an awesome full band arrangement.

There are also moments on the album that strike familiar tones. Multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook’s piano flourishes combined with soft horn hits and the roughhewn texture of Taylor’s voice lends itself to some irresistible Van Morrison comparisons, especially on “Harder Rain”. The song carries the intimacy and romance of people playing in a room together. It doesn’t break as much as it crests, building to a dewy crescendo. You can almost feel the collaborators looking to each other where to go next.

The album’s finest moment is it’s last – the instant-classic “When the Wall Comes Down”. It’s unclear if Taylor is referincing about that wall, but moments here feel more like advice than political statement. “What you oughta do is let it lie,” Taylor says. Then some more advice. “Step back, Jack, from the darkness.” Taylor is talking about being hopeful when there’s something in your way. “It’s a beautiful world but painful, child/Tear it down.” He’s right.

Hiss Golden Messenger group has crafted something to be a balm for a persistent burn. It is not a record made as a reaction to terrible times, instead it is a beautiful example of creating great art in spite of them. What it says is that we’re all in this together, moving forward and doing the best we can. That, truly, is Hallelujah Anyhow.

Halleujah Anyhow is out today on Merge.

Deer Tick Do it All and Do it Well with Vol. 1 & Vol. 2

By the mid-2000s my mother had trained all my loved ones to know that the Easy Default Gift for Young Tim was a $10 dollar iTunes gift card. Maybe $25 for a birthday or Christmas.

I was entranced by iTunes “Recommended for You” algorithm, a bunch of code that drew me down the countless side streets of rock—I’d budget in $.99 increments, trying to stretch my digital cash as far as I could. That’s how I first heard the Hold Steady, the Minutemen, and the Replacements FAR before I knew anyone who had even heard of those bands, never mind gave a damn about them. For the myriad evils and industry cratering effects of digital music and streaming, it’s hard to argue against the raw glory of there always being another band you’ve never heard before.

That’s where Deer Tick have always existed for me—just on the periphery. Another band I might like. For some reason or another, I just never gave them a fair shake. I went in cold with their latest, the eponymous Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

Anyway, shit, man—it turns out they’re really good! Don’t you love when that happens?

Let’s cut to quick—Vol. 1 is the acoustic record, and Vol. 2 is a rock ‘n’ roll operation. This approach is a bold move—it’s a lazy trope, but double albums are generally (and [usually] rightly) perceived as an exercise in indulgence that would benefit from some editing, much like this sentence.

Honestly, that’s probably the case here too—but thanks to the craft on display I don’t mind the excess so much. Dancing between genres and sentiments with grace, the band still sidesteps the pitfall of phoning anything in. If scale is ever a problem, it’s because there are plenty of great songs tucked between a smattering of really good ones, and the breadth of the two volume approach makes for undeniably pleasant listening that feels comprehensive, if not cohesive.

Recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios of Memphis, Tennessee, things naturally sound fantastic right out of the gate. This is a great band in a great room. Lead single “Sea of Clouds” is all ragged vocals and acoustic guitars that ripple across the stereo spectrum like heat coming off of a highway. “Card House” rides an off-kilter groove that balances perfectly against syrupy vocal harmonies and rich string work.

Vol.2 kicks off with “Don’t Hurt,” wasting exactly no time in establishing the band’s new tonal pallette—fuzz guitar and organ mingle gleefully over swaggering drums. The band remains in that gear for most of their second act, and if you’re looking to hear a rock band do big rock songs, you’ll walk away satisfied.

I love that Deer Tick closes this fairly kaleidoscopic effort out on an upbeat note, with the deceptively titled “Mr. Nothing Gets Worse.” You know, I have absolutely no idea what the song is about, but it’s because I’m always distracted by the sound—it’s all rollicking good-vibe guitars, pass-the-mic antics and ripshit sax solos, and I love it.

Ultimately, that’s the best reason to recommend Deer Tick’s Vol. 1 and Vol. 2—it’s the sound of a fantastic band doing everything they can think of, and doing it well. If you open it up and look around awhile, odds are you’ll find something to love too.

Vol 1. and Vol 2. are both out today on Partisan Records.

The National Shake Things Up on Sleep Well Beast

When you talk about a new album by The National, there’s a few concessions you make. You’re not really stressing sound and progression but you do detail the mood and intensity. They’re a band of Midwestern men, two sets of brothers, and a guy that has a brother (as the excellent 2014 documentary Mistaken For Strangers shows), that define themselves by both their creative and personal tensions. They progress in inches, not leaps. Well, that is until now. Sleep Well Beast feels somewhat like a sonic redefinition.

While each record from 2005’s Alligator felt like a deeper descent into an emotional and sonic black hole, there’s an electricity that runs through their latest that feels like a band reacting against their darker impulses. Opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” creeps up on you – Berninger sings like he’s telling a secret, backed by nocturnal percussion and string swells. It’s a beautiful, but odd opener, as the pulsating “Day I Die” kicks into gear. The balance feels off The band experiments with synths and guitar solos all over the place – including the ripshit “Turtleneck”. The National have not made a song that has let Berninger go this loose on record since “Abel”. The guitars are nervy and suspenseful. It’s going to sound awesome live.

The three song run of “Guilty Party,” “Carin at the Liquor Store,” and “Dark Side of the Gym” are some of the most gorgeously staggering songs that the band has put together about love and relationships. “Guilty Party” talks about a failing relationship, while “Carin at the Liquor Store” is a piano ballad that’s apparently about guitarist Aaron Dessner’s mother-in-law that passed away during recording. “Dark Side of the Gym” has ‘wedding song’ written all over it, Berninger, evokes Renaissance imagery as he sings in duet with Irish singer Lisa Hannigan: “I have dreams of anonymous castrati/Singing to us from the trees/I have dreams of a first man and a first lady/Singing to us from the sea“. It’s language ripe for a first dance.

Despite these high points – there are some moments that don’t feel right. The intro to “I’ll Still Destroy You” feels a little out of place, perhaps like an Amnesiac-era Radiohead outtake, as well as the first single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, has a lot going on – keys, guitar stabs and some synth hits. It’s also got sickly-sweet guitar solo which is the best part of the song, mainly because they are rarely, if ever heard on National albums.

At its core, Sleep Well Beast is a very good album by The National. The band backed itself against the wall with 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, hewing a little too close to the sound they’d cultivated with their previous three albums. It’s the sound of a band taking chances with an established formula, spreading out and showing that after nearly twenty years together they can find ways to create something deeply engaging.
Is it the album to start a new fan with? No. Is it a worthy addition to their catalog? Certainly. They have consistently made records that try to top one another. Perhaps they have yet to create their best. If anything, Sleep Well Beast shows that all bets are off. Keep listening.

Sleep Well Beast is out now on 4AD.

LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream is a Remarkable Return

LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy has always been obsessed with aging, the process thereof, and the self-awareness of coming that you are no longer the cool person in the room. One of LCD’s most enduring songs, “Losing My Edge” – is about that. I’m a few months away from being 32, the same age when he wrote that song. I get it. I’m still heavily involved in being a music fan when many of my peers have turned their attention elsewhere. Even with that, the pulse of pop culture is evaporating under my fingertips. We live in an era of ‘everything now,’ but culture now moves so quickly, it’s almost impossible to decode the latest meme without a Google search or find yourself realize that you’re technically old enough to be the parent of some of the artists in the Billboard Top 100.

Then, of course, “I was there”. I love to gloat that I was at the ‘final’ LCD Soundsystem show at Madison Square Garden. The documentary of the final show, titled Shut Up and Play The Hits, is a defining moment in rock history, sort of a next gen version of The Last Waltz. It was a four hour long show, a sort of euphoria mixed with a wry sadness. In essence, it was a really big Irish wake. Hearing last year that the group was reforming, I couldn’t help feeling a little put off by it. But it wasn’t without precedent – even The Band mostly got back together after The Last Waltz. The difference here is that they never truly released an album that stood next to their classic material. But with American Dream, LCD Soundsystem managed to.

Released today, the album is not exactly about that, but there are parts of it that show a wisened Murphy bringing the sounds of his youth to the forefront. Many of songs on this album are reminiscent so much of Robert Fripp or coke-era Bowie – a sound that somehow hasn’t been strip-mined within an inch of it’s life – recast as a way to transmit Murphy’s state of mind.

As with any LCD Soundsystem album, there are endless quips that strike with their *realness* – take “Emotional Haircut” for example: “You got numbers on your phone of the dead that you can’t delete/And you got life-affirming moments in your past that you can’t repeat,” or on “Tonite” which sounds the closest thing like a paint-by-numbers LCD song as it gets before Murphy observes – “Everybody’s singing the same song/It goes tonight, tonight, tonight, tonight, tonight, tonight/I never realized these artists thought so much about dying”.

Dying. The album’s most emotional moment is the 12-minute closer “Black Screen” which is clearly about Murphy’s friendship with David Bowie during his final years. Murphy contributed elements to Bowie’s final album Blackstar. Words here really can’t do it justice. Listen to it in a quiet space when you’re alone. It may be the most vulnerable Murphy has ever sounded on record.

American Dream is an album that in no way sounds like a rehash. Even the songs that sound like “Classic LCD” have an undercurrent that places them out of time. The themes that Murphy sings about might be similar, but make no mistake, this is a band that has been somewhere, has grown older and better. By all accounts, they’re here to stay. May we all accept aging and the evolution of “cool” as well as they have. What a great example to have. By all accounts, they’re here to stay. May we all accept aging and the evolution of “cool” as well as they have. What a great example to have.

American Dream is out today on Columbia.