L.A. Takedown’s II a Journey Worth Taking

You don’t need to have been to Los Angeles to best experience L.A. Takeover’s latest album, II. It’s an album that’s evocative of a time and place, though it’s one that may or may not exist. The fact that it’s almost entirely instrumental (save for some lightly sprinkled vocoder in its final moments) doesn’t provide any concrete evidence. It’s an album length mystery, and one that’s worth the patience of letting it unfold.

Led by Los Angeles-based composer/multi-instrumentalist Aaron M. Olson, the seven-piece band’s follow-up to L.A. Takedown’s 2015 self-titled debut is the first release featuring the full band – keyboardists Ryan Adlaf and Jonah Olson, guitarists Miles Wintner and Stephen Heath drummer Mose Wintner, and bassist Jessica Espeleta. ‘Composer’ is not a loose term in this case – Olson studied classical music history and theory at San Francisco State.

Full of perfectly slick guitars, heavy beds of synths and keys and crisp drums, II feels less like the work of a rock band, and more like the score to a night out in one of the west coast’s foremost cities: a place where it seems permanently dusky and all the signs are neon. Effortless syncopation of guitars on tracks like “L.A. Blue” and “City of Glass” have the warmth of a Xanax buzz. Everything feels a little out of focus, the kisses are a little softer, and sleep feels imminent the minute the eye settles behind the eyelid. (It probably doesn’t hurt that the album cover is an illustration of a similar-looking pill between two fingers.)

Songs like “Night Skiing” feel like hero’s journeys – driving percussion and synths give away to the album’s loosest shredding eventually building to a climax that would get a nod of respect from the most ardent Van Halen devotees. Each song has a way of feeling like a mini symphony that fits perfectly in the whole of the album – the most 80’s dry-drum sound of “Bad Night at Black Beach” is even worthy of its place, even if it doesn’t feel much more like an extended interlude.

What L.A. Takedown have done with II is create a record that forces a listener to really feel. It’s imaginative, ambitious and in a weird way, a little ponderous. It feels like a place you can visit, look around and feel the breeze. Is it Los Angeles? Is it somewhere in the desert, or the sound of driving down an empty highway with the top down? That’s not entirely clear, and maybe it’s best not to think about it. It will take you somewhere new each time.

II is out May 12 on Ribbon Music. Listen to “Night Skiing” below.

Sorority Noise Look to the Past to Evolve on New Album

What is emo? A classicist view may lend itself to sounds like The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good or Weezer’s Pinkerton, which gave way to second-generation icons like Brand New. While The Promise Ring and especially Weezer never really quite built on the successes of their early records, Brand New began as a yawpy pop-punk band that suddenly transformed into a wiry, textured post-punk punk act that felt a little less emotional and a little more devastating with each release. It’s this template that has given birth to bands like Sorority Noise, whose third album You’re Not As _____ As You Think just arrived on Triple Crown Records.

The Hartford, CT band are often mentioned in the same sentence as artists like Modern Baseball and Julien Baker, friends that they reference casually in both press and in songs. Together, these artists are part of a new wave of punk that shows a staggering propensity to grow quickly musically and lyrically with each record. Sorority Noise’s 2014 debut Forgettable is a clever (but not inaccurate) name. It only offers a preview of the promise the group – Cam Boucher’s early lyrical prowess and a few guitar atmospherics. This was refined on next year’s Joy, Departed, a record that seems less like a band with something to prove, sounding a little road-tested, adding texture to songs and having more than a few killer tracks, including the hooky self-doubt of “Art School Wannabe”.

You’re Not As _____ As You Think represents another evolution – it seems to be a little less about relationships and self doubt and a lot more of contemplating loss and death and questioning the existence of God. (Of course, there’s also ‘look-how-far-we’ve-come‘ moment for a 31-year-old reviewer, even referencing the Gaslight Anthem’s “The ‘59 Sound”. It’s always going to feel too early for that.)

Opening track “No Halo” details Boucher experiencing the loss of a friend, skipping his funeral but later on driving to his house forgetting he had passed away. “Disappeared” is straight out of the playbook of Modern Baseball’s Jake Ewald – wordy verses with something that sounds like a hook but the secret is that it’s not quite one. The most intriguing tracks are the two “Letters” songs that feel a little more like interludes – “First Letter from St. Sean” and “Second Letter from St. Julien” that Boucher uses to further the loose narrative. “Sean” talks about the emptiness of loss, while “Julien” – an obvious reference to his friend and practicing Christian Julien Baker – sounds like he’s letting us in on a personal conversation and it’s not pretty – “You say there’s a god/And you say you’ve got proof/Well I’ve lost friends to heroin/So what’s your god trying to prove?”

With maturity and a willingness to confront tough subjects on record, it’s clear that You’re Not As _____ As You Think is the best offering from Sorority Noise to date. For a band whose median age is 23, it’s an impressive record that is part homage to the bands that inspired them while also working to take chances with their sound a little more quickly than expected. It’ll be exciting to see what they come up with next. It probably won’t sound anything like this.

Japandroids Return with the Right Album at the Right Time

It’s a weird feeling to be in transition: constantly thinking about where to go next, the thrill of excitement just out of reach, and possibility feeling so endless that it’s overwhelming. What do you do?

With Near to the Wild Heart of Life, Japandroids first album in almost five years, that feeling of being flux is everywhere – literally. Song titles contain words like “near” “to” and one song is simply named “North East South West”. It’s a record about growing up, moving on, and exploding the tiny moments in life that feel so much bigger in retrospect than they do in the moment.

Both 2009’s Post-Nothing and 2012’s Celebration Rock faced some criticism for sounding somewhat piecemeal in their sequencing. The latest album represents the first time the band feels like they’ve done something deliberate – and it works. As two guys from Vancouver bashing out some of the most euphoric jams that could be made two people at a time. By slowing down and looking a little more inward, they have made something that really feels like an album, as they’ve detailed in notes for the release. “Side A and side B each follow their own loose narrative. Taken together as one, they form an even looser narrative, with the final song on side B acting as an epilogue.” While they’ve succeeded, they may have done it at the cost of throwing off any fans who were expecting Celebration Rock II.

The production is larger and the songs have a sense of space not found on previous Japandroids records. Make no mistake, this record still has plenty of the fiery romanticism and the hooks that made the band so irresistible, but there is simple separation in the sounds to take that all in. There’s prominent synthesizers – the warped 7-minute “Arc of Bar” is a great example– and then another sound not found on previous Japandroids releases – acoustic guitar strums on the gorgeous “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will”. Just these small touches alone show that the band is taking small steps to distance themselves the bash-and-blaze chaos of the first two albums.

Like every Japandroids record, this one feels kind of like a small miracle. They are a band who feels like they’re just on the verge of disappearing at any time. They make some of the most immediate and visceral sounding rock and roll and really seem to take that role seriously. Perhaps that’s why they take long gaps between albums with nary a hint of when they’ll resurface.

In a sense, Near to the Wild Heart of Life reminds us of some truths that we all eventually face. Everything is constantly changing. Right now is the youngest you’ll ever be. Eventually, we have to all take chances if we want evolve. Sure, the album is not perfect, and some experiments don’t work. That sounds like life. It won’t bring us back to the time where we felt infinite. But when it’s over, it’s a small reminder to keep going in hope that next day will be better than the last. That in itself is a victory – at this moment in time, that is exactly what we need.

Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is due out January 27, 2017 on Anti- Records, with a special early release for vinyl on January 24.

The Rest of the Best of 2016

Favorite Moments of 2016

1. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Being in Wrigleyville during the series. Being at the parade. Pure emotion. Being with Jordan when they won. Eamus Catuli switching to all zeroes. Not quite giving up hope when it seemed all but over MULTIPLE times. Continuing to ride that wave.

Katie Nixon and I near the seventh largest gathering in human history.

2. Meeting Bruce Springsteen the day before my birthday. Also, his show at United Center on August 28. Magic in the night.

3. The Hold Steady: Reunite with Franz Nicolay, play a bunch of really awesome shows behind my favorite album of all time. The Frenchkiss reissues of AKM and Sep Sunday. Lifter Puller twice in one year, including the opportunity to stand on stage at Red Rocks. Denver meh, Chicago good and New York was wonderful but I could have done without the concussion. Great openers: Titus Andronicus, Laura Stevenson (so nice!) and Lifter Puller. Nights go on forever and guitars are cool.

4. Nashville visits, March-August (Just a few: recording in the Third Man Booth, all the food, Infinity Cat House, Doom, Tim buys a guitar, City Winery, meeting Daddy Issues and Diarrhea Planet, and pretty much everyone that made my time there awesome.)

Hanging with Emmett and Evan from Diarrhea Planet.

5. More travel: Austin, TX trip with my Mom. Hanging in Boston and candlepin bowling with some of my best people and Vineyard Youth in Pawtucket, RI. Additionally, anyone who came to visit me and had a good time.

6. Health and wellness: PRing my third 5K on the October 30 Hot Chocolate Run. Exercising regularly for the first time in my life. Reading the most books this year than I’ve read in a decade.

7. Personal: Getting the opportunity to write for Men’s Journal and interviewing Dolph Ziggler, Chad Gable, Hot Doug and Andrew Wyslotsky.

My team beat his in the World Series. I ain’t sorry.


8. Wrestling: American Alpha winning the NXT and WWE Smackdown Tag Team titles in the same year (all of the great wrestling this year, seriously.) Owens and Zayn at Payback in a total mindblower. Zayn and Nakamura at Takeover Dallas. DIY and Revival at Takeover Toronto. Meeting Jerry Lawler randomly in Memphis inside his restaurant and being able to tell him we shared a birthday.

9. Food: Qui, Parachute, Rolf and Daughters, Husk, Mitchell’s Delicatessen, Maketto, Pinewood Social, Row 34, Mission Chinese and a ton I’m missing.

10. Trash Pandas releases two EP’s and having involvement in them. They make me laugh and proud I did a thing that’s out in the world.

Shows

I saw 37 shows this year. Take a look.

Everything I Listened To

I made a playlist for every month this year of everything I listened to individually (excluding albums). Check it out.

Favorite Songs of 2016 (And Other Stuff)

My Top Songs of 2016 playlist, favorite 2015 discovery of 2016 and Honorable Mention albums. Heads up, the song list is 80 songs long, so hit shuffle and enjoy!

Also, “Home” by Big Sky Hunters

Favorite Non-2015 Discovery:

Sprained Ankle by Julien Baker

Honorable Mention Albums:

Carolina Ghost by Caleb Caudle
If You See Me, Say Yes by Flock of Dimes
A Seat at the Table by Solange
Robert Ellis by Robert Ellis
Southern Family curated by Dave Cobb

Favorite Albums of 2016

Lots of great music was released in 2016, so much so it was hard to decide what made the list. This year, I also included a list of my favorites ranked 11-20. Favorite songs/moments to follow soon.

1. Modern Baseball – Holy Ghost

In a year that seemed anything but normal, a relatively conventional record made by a young group of friends talking about the issues they face every day – both small scale and impossibly large – was my favorite thing I heard all year. Holy Ghost from Philadelphia-based Modern Baseball is an exemplary piece of songwriting buoyed by the band’s two principals, Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens. While Ewald’s compositions feel more patient and hew more towards a verse-chorus-verse structure, Lukens’s feel messier, willed into existence as they went to tape.

The group detailed their personal journeys leading up to the album’s release with the excellent “Tripping in the Dark” mini-documentary, but what really stands out is how much they care about each other. Holy Ghost is the sound of friends sticking together through the hard stuff. It’s sweetly inspirational, and personally motivated me to create something meaningful with my friends for the first time in years. In a year where everything seemed unpredictable, something as simple as that concept just feels right.

2. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

How is it that a singer with an outmoded country lilt can make a sonic love letter to his young son, and manage to make it sound so universal? Well, Sturgill Simpson did it. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a song cycle that serves as the “oh-shit” kit to fatherhood, full of life lessons (including, humorously, “motor oil is motor oil, so keep your engine clean”), stories about his time in the Navy, and (maybe for the first time ever) a truly great Nirvana cover with “In Bloom”. The presence of the Dap Kings horns section adds some looseness not previously found in his catalog – Sailor’s Guide doesn’t really sound like a country record and doesn’t really sound like a rock record, either. It doesn’t sound like anything else, anywhere, which is probably why he’s now the enfant terrible of the Nashville country scene. Whatever. Keep going, dude.

3. Diarrhea Planet – Turn to Gold

I made around a half-dozen trips to Nashville this year, and spent most of the summer there, witnessing a place in transition. The city is dramatically different than when I was there in 1997. Back then it still felt a little hokey country-uncool, but almost twenty years later it has given way to Williamsburg South – artisan coffee shops and restaurants, an exploding population of millennials looking to find something authentic. What that is, well, it’s not really clear, but the city seems to be in a bit of an identity crisis as it deals with these changes as it moves away from being a hotbed of southern tradition.

But then, there’s Diarrhea Planet, who really have nothing to do with that. One of the tentpole acts of the city’s Infinity Cat Records, the group that has four guitarists made THE seminal party rock record of the year with Turn to Gold: one that strikes the balance of premiere musicianship and finally marries it with the grand ambition that they have teased over the course of their previous two records. It sounds bigger, more triumphant, and wildly confident, as if the band just decided they were going to clean up their production because it was just the next logical move they’d make towards world domination. No one can touch them at this point. Don’t even try.

4. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

Justin Vernon started the Bon Iver project in 2007 as a guy with an acoustic guitar, and pretty quickly morphed into something that was less guy-with-a-guitar and by 2011’s Bon Iver it thawed into an album of the most deliberate soft rock-as-soul, lush, organic soundscapes this side of Bruce Hornsby.

But with 22, A Million, another transformation. Obscured by technology, bending the realm of what’s physically possible through a literally invented filter – his engineer literally created an instrument called the Messina – Vernon presents another chapter of the Bon Iver story that feels familiar, but still deeply distant. What’s contained on the record is just fractured bits of a life, forget song structure. “Verse chorus verse” means nothing. It’s a whole statement, a composite of parts, not whole wholes. It’s easy to be fascinated by Vernon’s mindset, someone who seems by all intents very accessible, maybe even *normal* by today’s standards, but that’s totally not it. The sounds, his words, almost feel elemental. I don’t know how else to put that. Get a pair of headphones, close your eyes and immerse. It will reveal its gifts to you.

5. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

To the rest of the world, Chicago is rapidly becoming the place in the news where you pretty much hear about climbing murder rates, corruption in city politics and the police department but not a whole lot else. As anyone from a place with a bad reputation, it’s hard to see that there’s so much to be proud of that comes from here. Chance the Rapper is one of them. That he’s gone from a blog rap favorite to world champion in the span of a few years is pretty amazing. He’s a hometown hero just now peaking, and bending the will of the hip-hop world to his vision.

On his third mixtape Coloring Book, with the use of sped up samples, euphoric choruses and gospel choirs, so much of Chance’s sound belongs to early Kanye West – especially that of The College Dropout. Kanye had a chip on his shoulder. Chance doesn’t. His confidence is fully formed. There is real joy and heartbreak in these songs. It’s a kaleidoscopic collection of sounds that are a suite for the Snapchat generation. It’s music that says something and sounds good. If you turned on the radio this year, could you escape “No Problem”? How many times have you heard mention of “Blessings” since they (both songs) entered the lexicon? Coloring Book is genre defining stuff, and Chance is just getting started. It’s impossible to figure out where he’s going next.

6. Pinegrove – Cardinal

Montclair, New Jersey’s Pinegrove released Cardinal in February, but there’s something about it that doesn’t feel of the season. It has worked for all of the changes in climate.. What’s here is eight songs brimming with confidence – emotional without exactly being emo, complex without being cocky, but mostly, having a gorgeous homespun, tossed off nature that seems so unreal when you factor in the with the careful shading in the songs. “Aphasia,” with its slide guitar solo and slow burn climax, may not just be one of the best songs of the year, but maybe one of the best I’ve ever heard.

7. David Bowie – Blackstar

Losing Prince this year was hard – a life very much still in progress, always poking his head out to remind us that he was here and he could do what he wanted when he wanted. With him, there’s a void that will never be filled. But with David Bowie, a man he will cosmically be tied to forever due to the proximity of their deaths, an entirely different story.

Largely in retreat from the public eye for the last decade, David Bowie surprise-released The Next Day in 2013 to massive critical acclaim. He made no statements or appearances related to the album, instead letting the music speak for itself. So, when Blackstar was announced late last year, it was expected this would be more of the same – a quiet late-period reinvention by the artist who did them best. It turned out to be anything but.

Blackstar, released only two days before Bowie’s death in January, is the climax to Bowie’s long goodbye. It’s a record that remakes him one last time, an icon coming to terms with his mortality, filtered through the sounds of the moment (allegedly, the major influence of this record was Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 release, To Pimp a Butterfly.) The title track and “Lazarus” stack up to anything he’s ever released, but the gravity of his situation comes clear with the album’s final “I Can’t Give Everything Away”: “seeing more and feeling less/saying no but meaning yes/this is all I ever meant/that’s the message that I sent.” Man. Ad astra, Starman.

8. Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like A Levee/Vestapol

Hiss Golden Messenger, the name of the group led by M.C. Taylor, completely obliterated any false notion I had of the group. I assumed with the name it was some sort of art rock project and never truly paid attention. That is, until I heard the title track from Heart Like A Levee: a beautiful, galloping ballad that is the centerpiece of a gorgeously constructed album full of songs that teeter lines of folk, country, bluegrass and rock. It’s just brilliantly pretty shit. Songs like “Biloxi” and “Happy Day (Sister My Sister)” flow like water. Also, be sure to listen to the bonus album “Vestapol” (included with deluxe editions of the album) that stack up to anything on the record it accompanies.

9. Touche Amore – Stage Four

Grief and loss are an impossible thing to quantify. Is there a way to even begin to convey the experience of losing someone? Not really. But with Touche Amore’s fourth record Stage Four, they get as close as they can to illustrating the unending bottom of having your life completely rocked. Stage Four deals bluntly through the harrowing experience of vocal Jeremy Bolm losing his mother to cancer in 2014. There are only a few moments on the album’s eleven songs that relent.

You feel Bolm’s raw throated vocals nearly moment, with one more line bruising than the other – “like a wave/like the rapture/something you love is gone/someone you love is gone” and the soul annihilating, hope-this-is-not true: “she passed away about an hour ago/when you were onstage living the dream”. Only on “Skyscraper,” the album’s closing track, a duet with Julien Baker, is there some kind of resolve – “you live there under the lights”, before segueing into the last voicemail Bolm’s mother left for him. It’s about picking up a prescription at CVS, but there’s something beautiful about how innocuous it is, and fitting that she’s the last voice you hear. If only this album never had to be made in the first place.

10. Beach Slang – A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings tied with A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

Beach Slang – A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings

Sometimes there are records that exist just to get you through. The stuff that’s always worked for me is the confessional, heart-on-your-sleeve, big guitars and shouty choruses. Beach Slang makes those kind of records. The band’s pair of EP’s in 2014 and last year’s insta-classic debut The Things We Do To Find People Like Us were thrilling documents of Replacements-style slop and romance with a Jawbreaker glaze. It’s kind of hard to hate.

Less than a year later, they returned with their second full-length, A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings, a record that takes what works and refines the focus and gets in and gets out before the sun sets. The album establishes James Alex as a workmanlike songwriter. Nothing here is particularly revelatory, but it strikes me as more of a continuation of what makes Beach Slang great – driving rockers like “Atom Bomb” with the irresistible lyric “I was born with trouble in me” and “Spin The Dial,” which is probably the sweetest song on a list of songs with harder edges. The Jawbreaker influence is a little stronger here: James Alex’s vocals are a little more obscured by fuzz, and his and the guitars cut like sharpened knives. The effect is twofold – If you’re a fan, you’ll notice the nuance, and if you’re just coming to them for the first time, it’s a complete introduction.

Their music sounds shambolic and sweet, full of positive energy and tales of raging against the dying of the light. It feels instant and pure, and A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings captures that energy again. Since its release, the band has experienced some major lineup turnover. Whether that influences the next record they do remains to be seen. But for now, we have this to hold on to.

A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

With A Tribe Called Quest widely being heralded as the greatest hip-hop group ever to do it, it felt hard to contextualize being a generation removed from their heyday. Their albums – classics like The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders still feel like classics today, but sometimes it was hard to find where they fit in the deluge of great hip-hop that exists today. That is until they released their final record, We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, recorded in the last year of Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor’s life.

Recorded and almost produced entirely by Q-Tip at his home in New Jersey, the final chapter of the ATCQ story is full of rhymes that feel classic Tribe, guest spots by longtime associates (Consequence, and an insanely inspired Busta Rhymes) and heavy hitters like Kanye West, Elton John and Kendrick Lamar. Phife Dawg feels alive and vibrant on this material, and you find yourself reminding yourself he didn’t make it to the end of the recording process. The result echoes in something that feels like Tribe, current without sounding wholly modern. In a time where many hip hop records are piecemeal done by different producers in different studios, the effort here feels unified – everyone working towards one vision to make one final product. The sound here is a little hazy, the samples tastefully chosen, led by a group of individuals hellbent on giving a sendoff to the greatest group to ever do it. It worked, but it also showed us that almost twenty years after their last album, they are still without peers. What a legacy to leave.

Albums 11-20

11. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
12. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
13. Amanda Shires – My Piece of Land
14. PKEW PKEW PKEW – PKEW PKEW PKEW
15. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
16. PUP – The Dream is Over
17. The Hotelier – Goodness
18. Music Band – Wake Up Laughing
19. Angel Olsen – My Woman
20. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Pretty Years