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.

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.

That Dog’s Retreat from the Sun is a Gift to the Awkward

Before blogs, music websites and Tumblr, LiveJournal was the place where angsty teenagers gathered to pirate music, post bad poetry and connect with others who felt the same. That time – 2003, to be exact – was when I joined a community called “redletterday,” named after the 1997 Get Up Kids EP of the same name, that was dedicated to lyrics that users related to or just wanted to share in an effort to be internet cool. Words were often posted without attribution, but I’d fall in love with them just the same. But then a set of lyrics appeared: “by definition/a crush must hurt/and they do/just like the one I have on you.” That’s the story of how I discovered “Long Island” by that dog.

I couldn’t believe that a band could so eloquently articulate the feelings I couldn’t. It spoke to my fifteen-year-old heart – while many of my friends were diving into relationships for the first time, often with boys I too had a crush on, I was crying to NSYNC songs. I wish I was kidding. Unable to open up, I was left alone to brood over them on Friday nights with only my tenor saxophone and my bass clarinet and a dial-up connection. For my entire sophomore year of high school, I played the song over and over. It didn’t occur to me at the time that they might have more music.

Eventually, I discovered Retreat From The Sun, the album “Long Island” is from. It sounded different than anything I’d been listening to until that point. Until then, my Napster queue was full of New Found Glory, The Movielife or any number of Drive-Thru Records bands. What set them apart is that they were girls. Sure, I could relate to sappy Something Corporate piano jams, but it wasn’t my voice. Anna Waronker and the Haden sisters had a way with words that spoke to me in a way I understood – and that bands made of boys never could.

Album opener “Annie” was familiar to a high schooler – “can we take your car/‘cause I don’t have one,” even if the rest of the song felt so alien. I didn’t know what a breakup felt like, but I knew wanting someone to take me out. In “Being With You,” Waronker sings of emptiness and pining over someone’s continued rejection. Whenever I would silently long for a classmate (without any ounce of action to pursue them) it really did feel like a cold rejection – how did this band know? “I sit with emptiness waiting for your call/an open phone line, but I still hit your walls” seems pretty pedestrian now, but at the time, it felt like I was the only girl in the world willing a phone to ring.

Despite a song like “Hawthorne” being pretty short of a revelation, lyrics like “Driving/Looking for your parents house/Striving/To find a piece of you/And I saw a punk rock show/In a car garage/And I saw you” felt like something I could have poured into a composition book on the way to a VFW hall show. Even more” adult” tracks “Minneapolis” filled me with longing. I wanted to sit around at the bar and date the touring musician! I wanted to go to the Low show! (And I definitely still wanted that car.) The title track talks about “younger people happy,” and I just wanted to jump through the computer to tell Anna that not all younger people were, that those people must be imposters.

Of course, by the time I found that dog., they’d already broken up, and it was years before I dove any deeper into their catalog. But Retreat From the Sun was the first time that I was able to get a glimpse of what my future might be like. A time where boys reciprocated my feelings, stories about my time spent in bars, the one night stands I had, what it was like to have a hangover and what a breakup feels like. Not all of those things are good, and they weren’t to go through, but for that girl stuck at home on a Friday night, the promise of those experiences were everything. For a while it was just enough to scrawl that lyric from “Long Island” in all of my notebooks. But what it really taught me is that I had a voice, that girls could make rock music, and made me think that maybe I had a musical future beyond the nerdy woodwinds. For that, I’m grateful and I’ll never forget it.