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.

Coming Closer with The War On Drugs A Deeper Understanding

My first experience with The War On Drugs is in 2009 when I saw them open up five times for The Hold Steady. They had just released Wagonwheel Blues, a promising, if not wholly remarkable debut. Adam Granduciel quickly identified me night-to-night as “Phillies shirt guy” because of the shirt I wore one of the nights. He and Dave Hartley and their drummer at the time signed my copy of the LP. I saw Adam play with Kurt Vile the next few years, was surprised by the release of 2011’s Slave Ambient, and watched the band skyrocket on the heels of 2014’s brilliant Lost in the Dream. It’s been remarkable to watch a band like that come full circle, but nothing could prepare for the release of their latest, A Deeper Understanding.

To put it bluntly: this is a really special album. It’s both accessible and ethereal, somehow operating as both a passive listen and intensely rewarding for much more detailed listeners. I keep playing it over and over, revealing bits I simply missed before. How often is an album both good for the passivity of a long drive but dense enough for headphone listening? There are moments that exist here that you don’t really notice until you focus, sort of like when you focus on taking a deep breath. You’re always *doing* it, but not until you take time to really concentrate, it’s then you are cognizant of the process.

A Deeper Understanding is an album that passes through your body with each inhale and exhale, with an ability to make you feel *something*. Sometimes that feeling that doesn’t always have a word to describe it. It envelopes you in sound, feeling heavy without the properties of being solid. Maybe that’s not for you, but damn if it’s not remarkable that something like this can exist today, when there are so many options to blunt those feelings. It invites you to come close, to be intimate, and reminds you what it’s like to be alive.

A Deeper Understanding is out now on Atlantic.

On Everything Now, Arcade Fire Sound Infinitely Content

There’s a real problem of being fatigued through overconsumption. It feels like as a culture we’re maxing out: we now have access to an endless pleasure funnel. If you have the means, you can gorge on all the music, movies, television and food you want. There is so much of everything. It’s perpetuating a practice of going-until-you-can’t, exhausting yourself and starting all over again. It never stops. There’s always “infinite content”.This is the thesis of Arcade Fire’s new album Everything Now.

Arcade Fire are one of the last bands to be born before the culture of critical mass, releasing one critically acclaimed record after another, culminating in a Grammy for Album of the Year for 2010’s The Suburbs. Every one of their releases has been an event, a sort of take on the modern blockbuster. You know when it’s coming, you know what it’s about. You’re immersed. The records themselves – always a little stuffed to the gills and a little long. Let’s be real: there’s always a few bummer tracks. While 2013’s Reflektor was actually a really great late-night dance record, it often got maligned self-indulgent.

Self-Indulgent? Isn’t that what got them here in the first place? Isn’t that what we want?

Pretty succinctly, Everything Now is a solid Arcade Fire record, and at this point in time, that’s good enough. From the title track where Win Butler singing about “Every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live without” to the middle-era Talking Heads groove of “Signs of Life,” these are some of the more accessible singles they’ve put out in a long time. Then, with one of the best tracks is the synth boom of “Creature Comfort” where Butler and Regine Chassagne talk about the desire of those who want to be famous, and if they can’t, dead. It gets real meta: “Assisted suicide/She dreams about dying all the time/She told me she came so close/Filled up the bathtub and put on our first record.” This sort of self-awareness from such an image-conscious group is a bit jarring.

“Chemistry” sounds pretty hokey at first, but then there’s a weird butt rock breakdown midway through that’s irresistible to want to play over and over. “Electric Blue” is a breezy showcase for Chassagne, but it doesn’t quite pack the emotional punch of her earlier tracks, like “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” from The Suburbs.

The album both begins and ends with a track called “Everything Now (Continued)”. Both songs feature a tired Butler singing “I’m in the black again/Not coming back again/We can just pretend/We’ll make it home again/From everything now.” The difference is that opener builds towards what ends up being the title track, while the closer the other forms a horn swell and cuts off abruptly. If the songs are left to repeat, the end of the album loops with the beginning. The album doesn’t truly begin or end until you’ve had enough.

It’s literally “Everything Now”. It is infinite content. Wait to for the prompt to ask “Are you still watching?”

Everything Now is out on Columbia Records.

Waxahatchee Return with the Career-Defining Out in the Storm

If you’ve followed the career of Katie Crutchfield and her albums under the name Waxahatchee, it’s clear that she never rests on her laurels. Whether it’s the lo-fi intimacy of American Weekend, the assured full-band sound of Cerulean Salt or the atmospherics of Ivy Tripp, each record shows Crutchfield confidently adapting new elements to her sound. On her latest, Out in the Storm, Crutchfield doubles down, making Waxahatchee’s best album to date.

The album was recorded last December in Philadelphia with producer John Agnello, best known for his records with Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth and The Hold Steady. Crutchfield employed her sister Allison Crutchfield on keyboards and percussion, Katherine Simonetti on bass, Ashley Arnwine on drums and Katie Harkin on lead guitar. Agnello suggested that the band record most of the music live in the studio, which brings a heavier guitar element to Waxahatchee songs than ever found before.

“Never Been Wrong,” the album’s opener, makes this abundantly clear. A distorted, plunging riff form the backbone of the song as Crutchfield’s voice takes front and center in the verse. It’s an awesome loud-quiet-loud rock song, full of driving guitars, pummeling bass and an insistent beat. Plus, “Everyone will hear me complain/And everyone will pity my pain”is going to be a great refrain to sing live, an eternal wink-and-nod fuck you to whoever inspired it.

Songs like “Silver” sound like a blue-album era Weezer song with “woo-ooh” backing vocals and a muscular riff with a runaway lead guitar on top. Here, Crutchfield sings “If I turn to stone/The whole world keeps turning’/I went out in the storm/And I’m never returning”. The sound and “world has turned” lyric similarity aside, it’s a three-and-a-half-minute power-pop blast that sounds like being over a bad relationship and wanting to get away from it.

Despite the brawny sound of much of Out in the Storm, elements of Crutchfield’s earlier songwriting find a place here, albeit improved. Both “Recite Remorse” and “Sparks Fly” are built on beds of keys and percussion that wouldn’t sound out of place on Ivy Tripp, but here they feel less weightless and more grounded, something only a seasoned musician and performer could pull off. “Sparks Fly” with brushed drums and swirling acoustic guitar at the forefront is one of the album’s best songs, both a beautiful ballad and a showcase for Crutchfield to do what she does so wonderfully – write songs of pure emotionalism that convey both vulnerability and strength.

That’s not the only example. There are the moments that just plain break your heart, the plaintive and spare “A Little More”. It may be one of the best recent songs describing what it is like to fall out of love. “I move delicately/I slowly choose my words” she starts “when my presence is felt/I’ll fly away just like a bird/a jagged truth left unheard” hurt plenty. Then she illustrates what it’s like watching the flame go out. “And I live a little more/and I die a little more.” It’s an unforgettable moment.

Out in the Storm is the best work from a musician and songwriter who has grown up band-by-band, album-by-album in front of an audience through much of her adult life. Everything up until this point has shown Katie Crutchfield’s ability and brilliance, but finally, she’s created a work that’s a complete statement, a seminal work for longtime fans and a starting point for both new ones.

It’s an album that represents the point when Waxahatchee’s ambition and ability and confidence run alongside one another. Where she goes next is anyone’s guess. The bar has been raised. Out in the Storm sets it high. There’s no doubt to believe she meets it next time around.

Out in the Storm is out now on Merge.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Reinvent The Nashville Sound

Had Jason Isbell stopped making music after his run with the Drive-By Truckers, his output would have already been legendary enough. “Outfit,” and “Goddamn Lonely Love,” alone are inches away from being modern standards. After a few promising records in the midst of a drugs-and-booze phase, Isbell got clean and released Southeastern in 2013, a stunning record of recovery and personal and professional redemption, followed soon after by 2015’s Something More Than Free. Despite releasing these albums under his own name, his backing band The 400 Unit performed with him on those records. Now on his latest, The Nashville Sound, their top billing returns, as they take more of a central role on Isbell’s songs.

What’s immediate from the album is a sense of looseness in Isbell’s songwriting and the band’s playing that hasn’t really felt a part of their sound since 2011’s Here We Rest. Whereas songs on Southeastern and it’s follow up sounded great, they had a sort of insularity absent on their earlier albums. Album opener “Last of My Kind” fades in, as if you’re getting a glimpse of a group of people playing together in a room, as Isbell sings about being left behind by the changing world. The song picks up with subtle intensity with every verse. This naturalistic style of production is a hallmark of longtime producer Dave Cobb’s style – here, it reintroduces the The 400 Unit as, well, a unit.

“Cumberland Gap,” is next, and it’s probably the most galvanic rocker that Isbell has written in some time. It has the propulsion of a later Springsteen and the E Street Band track, full of hardscrabble guitars and a soaring chorus. That’s not just only in the band’s sound. Isbell borrows from Springsteen’s populism, as Isbell sings about the working class, in this case, the families of miners.

Then there’s “If We Were Vampires,” an arresting duet between Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires. The song sounds gothic on title alone, it’s anything but. Essentially, it’s an acoustic ballad where Isbell and Shires ruminate on the limited time they have together while they’re alive. “It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever/Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone/Maybe we’ll get forty years together/But one day I’ll be gone/Or one day you’ll be gone.” It’s spare, beautiful and nothing short of a classic. The sweet irony of the song is unlike the two that sing it, it will live forever.

“Anxiety” is a seven-minute epic about just what the title suggests. The guitars are stormy and the rhythms insistent. Isbell’s lyrics may be familiar to those who struggle with it: “You got to give me a minute/Because I’m way down in it/And I can’t breathe so I can’t speak/I want to be strong and steady, always ready/Now, I feel so small, I feel so weak”. They eventually give away to a furiously strummed bridge which kicks into a wily guitar solo. The lyrics, although familiar, may be a tough sell and with many artists shouldn’t have worked, but Isbell’s earnestness and the mastery of The 400 Unit sell it.

The last two songs on The Nashville Sound are songs of great reflection – “Hope The High Road,” and “Something to Love”. On the upbeat “Hope The High Road,” Isbell takes stock of everything he’s learned over the years, through sobriety, marriage and fatherhood. “I know you’re tired/And you ain’t sleeping well/Uninspired/And likely mad as hell/But wherever you are/I hope the high road leads you home again.” It feels like a salve for the wounds inflicted on the world of the past few years, what feels an endless string of bad news. “Something to Love,” is very much a song where Isbell sings to his young daughter. Paired with Shires on background vocals, the parents sing about hoping she finds ‘something to love, something to do when you feel like giving up’. It’s a sweet and easy ballad, but it feels like the song order should be reversed. Maybe. “Hope the High Road” feels like a pep talk to everyone. “I’ve sang enough about myself,” he sings. Ok, fine. Makes sense. “Something to Love” is the denouement and a look into the future.

On The Nashville Sound, it’s clear his focus has shifted. It’s less about him, and more about his family. It’s remarkable watching Jason Isbell grow as both a person and a musician. Through his daughter, more stories are to be told. Perhaps as a result, Isbell’s next act will be even better than the first two.

MUNA Offer More Than Just Making People Move

Listening to the debut album from Los Angeles-based trio MUNA, it would be easy to assume that based on their sunny synth compositions, they’d make propulsive music for the dance floor set. Part of that is true, but it’s apparent that with About U, they have a lot more to offer than just making people move.

The Los Angeles-based group – Katie Gavin (lead vocals / production), Naomi McPherson (production / guitar / synths / vocals) and Josette Maskin (lead guitar / vocals) – formed in 2013 and released a series of EP’s of various evolutions of what they’ve described as “dark pop.” These eventually earned them tours with bands like Of Monsters and Men, a slot at Lollapalooza, and even a TV appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

The band’s early success is apparent from the leadoff track So Special, full of cyclical, moody synths that would not be out of place during cinematic nighttime desert drive. It’s a great table setter – quickly breaking into something brighter, bursting into a chorus about the disappointment of lost love. The band plays with atmospherics in the bridge through manipulating vocals and slick guitars that show their dexterity. Songs like End of Desire and Everything, with their multi-layered vocal approaches, sound like they’ve taken a page out of the HAIM playbook, and it works great. But then there are songs take a decidedly more serious turn. The lead single, Loudspeaker, is a slow burn anthem – the lyrics: what you’ve done to me/well I’ve seen many a friend be silenced/thinking nobody would believe them/well baby you’ve got another thing coming, is a direct reference at the band’s intent of the song to bring awareness of how common it is for women who experience sexual assault. The chorus drives it home – so if I feel real good tonight/ I’m gonna put it high on the loudspeaker/and if I feel like crying, I won’t hide it / I am a loudspeaker. While nothing can truly ease that trauma, “Loudspeaker” is a great respite, even if just for a few minutes.

“I Know a Place”, imagines an actual respite. It starts pretty syrupy with its ooh, yeah background vocals and stratosphere-stretching chorus, but a little context changes that perspective. MUNA’s three members identify as queer, and the song talks of a safe space where everyone will ‘lay down their weapon’ and ‘giving me trust and see what will happen. The band released it in the wake of the Orlando Pulse Nightclub Massacre in June 2016. With that knowledge, it feels more purposeful than a simple pop song.

While songs like “I Know a Place” are about an idea that is utopian, achieving what MUNA describe doesn’t feel completely out of the realm of possibility. About U is an album with plenty of imagination and a fearlessness to talk about things that matter in a way that a wide audience can understand. Their sound is perfect for their message, and if this album is any indication, what’s to come may soon offer MUNA a bigger platform than they ever expected.


This review was written originally for VinylMnky.