Twenty Years On, “Pinkerton” Still Feels Like New

weezer_pinkertonTwenty years ago today, Weezer’s “Pinkerton” was released. It came to me as a 15 year old in late-2001, still in its relative early days as a forgotten classic, held in high esteem by the indie press for its raw emotion and lyrical content and still a deeply uncomfortable subject for its creator, Rivers Cuomo.

It’s my second favorite album of all time – another dude wearing glasses spitting missives would claim the throne a few years later – but it strikes me as how durable it has been over the years.

It’s immaculately recorded – you can hear every instrument, every peculiar background vocal (Andy Wyslotsky and I would team up on “El Scorcho” in the car on the vocals for years) and has that amazing line about ECW preserved for eternity. It is an album that (not exclusively) encapsulates the frustration to be a young male not understanding girls to developing ten years of being a twenty-something male that still doesn’t understand girls.

It’s sad, funny and perfect. “Pinkerton,” twenty years on, was a record out of its time and place then, and for those folks who discover it now will find a home with it and something that sounds kind of like understanding.

Beach Slang’s ‘Teenage Feelings’ a Thrilling Second Chapter

a1153972391_10Sometimes 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 kind of rock. 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 are back with their second full length album, 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.

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. While their debut set the scene, this album is comfortable being the second chapter in the larger story. The Jawbreaker influence is a little stronger here: James Alex’s vocals are a little more obscured by fuzz, and his and Ruben Gallego’s 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.

There’s a great lyric that comes at the end of the record on “The Perfect High” – “Let’s get caught in this weird thing”. I think that sums up Beach Slang sort of perfectly. They’re a band that seemingly came out of nowhere to captivate anyone that will listen. 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. What will be really weird, though, is to see where they take that momentum next, because with what you hear on this record, you can’t help but think a twist is coming in the next chapter.

“A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings” is out on Polyvinyl on September 23.

Amanda Shires’s ‘Land’ Is Her Best Record Yet

amandashiresAmanda Shires has been an excellent solo musician in her own right for years, a fact that’s been partially obscured by the runaway success of her husband, singer-songwriter, Jason Isbell.

While that fact is never exactly forgotten, her place is often cast as a few things – the fiddle player in Isbell’s backing band the 400 Unit, or as a central figure in his recovery from addiction or even in stories about their family life. While that’s certainly a part of her story, it’s not all of it, and her newest record solidifies that fact.

On My Piece of Land, her first record since 2013’s Down Fell The Doves, Shires creates a compelling and gorgeous portrait, putting all of her abilities at the forefront. Helmed by producer Dave Cobb, (responsible for producing the last two of Isbell’s records), “Land” tackles subjects such as relationships, anxiety, fear, and of course, love. Shires has been working towards a M.F.A. in creative writing from The University Of The South (Seawanee) over the past five years. As part of her studies she workshopped poems, which she credits with strengthening her songwriting.

“Slippin” is a mid-tempo ballad that includes acoustic guitar and Isbell’s guitar leads and deals with the anxiety of a partner being gone for long stretches of time. “Tonight could be the night that you could go slipping away from me,” sings Shires. Isbell’s background vocals provide context, creating a dialogue between the two singers. It’s a song that presents a problem and offers the solution all at once.

Immediately following comes the torch song “Harmless,” which creates a scene of infidelity. Barely-there acoustic guitar melts into a hazy, aqueous lead. “It might have been cheating/where exactly is the lie?,” she asks. Shires’s ability to break up a note in the middle of singing – in this case, the word “breathing” is nothing short of masterful, and makes the song all that more delicate. It’s one of the best songs of the year, and with the proper attention, will be a standard for years to come.

Uptempo songs like “Nursery Rhyme” and “When You’re Gone” are a welcome change of pace and showcase Shires’s dexterity. Her fiddle playing has always been a highlight whether recorded or in live performance. It’s lyrical in nature, and adds drama to songs like “My Love – The Storm”, and “You Are My Home”.

My Piece of Land is a welcome return from one of the sneaky-great musicians of this era. Shires’ songcraft bridged with excellent playing and nimble voice is so rare. Here’s hoping she makes more records like this sooner than later.

Lydia Loveless Keeps it Close on “Real”

lydia_loveless_coverI saw Lydia Loveless play a street fest this summer and I was wowed by her presence and power. She’s a complete force of nature, synthesizing sorta-country with sorta-punk but maintaining an edge found in only the most classic singer-songwriters. There is not a whole lot like that.

That feeling of Loveless’s power extends with her records – she has always seemed older and wiser beyond her 25 years. She sings with the strength and world-wearniness of a veteran performer. Just listen to “Crazy” from 2011’s “Indestructible Machine”. There’s some decades-old heartbreak in a song by someone who had just turned 21. That’s continued with 2014’s “Somewhere Else” and with “Real”, due Friday.

“Same to You”, full of crashing chords is a propulsive, arresting opener, and the first single “Longer”, with its power-pop leanings is equally memorable. They’re two great songs back to back. “Heaven” with its dry drum hits and dancing bass lines feel unlike anything in Loveless’s catalog – it feels almost something like you’d hear on 80’s pop radio. This is a good thing.

Still, with these early bright spots, something about this collection feels like it’s a portrait of an artist in transition. “Out On Love” with its atmospheric guitars never really seems to leave the ground, “Bilbao” feels a bit like it plods and has an almost saccharine refrain. These complaints are small, but definitely noticeable.

Loveless has worked with the same producer, Joe Veirs on her last three releases, and while he’s done an admirable job serving her songs thus far, “Real” feels less like a step forward and more like an artist that’s maintaining the status quo. That’s okay for now – but after two back-to-back classics, it feels like a deliberate attempt to not shake too much up. Perhaps she’ll paint with a new sonic palette next time. Regardless, she remains one of the most gifted young artists of her time, and that alone is reason to pay close attention.

On Pablo, Kanye’s State is Cause for Concern

Kanye West – “The Life of Pablo”

pabloKanye West has proven peerless in the hip-hop world. No one can quite do what he can in terms of his creative process. Take any two albums in his catalog – the plastic pop-rap of “Graduation” that dives headfirst into remote, cold AutoTune territory of “808’s and Heartbreak,” or the grandeur and maximalism of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” to the mechanical grind of “Yeezus”. The left turns are so sharp, so staggering, that any time he’s put out a record we debate endlessly about the merits of his work in contrast to the difficult public persona he’s fashioned over the last decade. For as messy as his personal relationships and personal life seem to be, his records have always been infused with a brilliant cohesion – perfectly crafted, no loose threads. Always a statement.

Until now.

West’s new record, the long-gestating “The Life of Pablo,” was finally released over the weekend after several starts-and-stops, a laundry list of album title changes and diluted by West’s penchant for making headlines for every seemingly ill-advised move. It still staggers, but for a different reason. It’s fractured and often gorgeous, but feels like there’s something deeply alarming, the work of someone that may not quite have command of their mind.

There are GREAT moments on the record, no doubt – the opener “Ultralight Beam” with its gospel choir and brilliant spot by Chance The Rapper, the synthy sweep of “Waves,” and that perfect understated Arthur Russell sample which provides the backbone of “30 Hours”. Some of these without question are Kanye’s best work, but for those, there’s moments where Kanye raps about himself in an acapella track titled, of course, “I Love Kanye”, or the audio-equivalent of a Pollock splatter with “Freestyle 4” with an ominous string sample. With that dichotomy, you can’t help feel like he’s losing the plot a little, and there are moments – like where he talks about being off Lexapro – make the case he’s suffering mental illness.

Perhaps that’s the case. Much of “Pablo” seems to come from a specific type of mania. Moments that masquerade as lucid and in full color, just might be elaborately constructed delusions. The best stuff is euphoric, but the experiments that fail are scary and cause definite concern. Like it or not, West is one of the most – if not the most – vital artists of our time. Hardly anyone with his reach attempts to bridge the gap between art and popular culture, and some may argue he’s the last true titan standing. He ignites the collective consciousness, for better or worse, and that’s important. Here’s hoping that he finds a path to what likely ails him.

But for now, we have “The Life of Pablo”. It’s like a Polaroid developing. Slowly coming into focus, second by second, minute by minute, creating a whole, but never quite crisp, clear and with the depth you’d get from another kind of camera. What finally appears is sort of hazy and dreamlike, telling a story far different than the one captured when the shutter closed.

Top 10 Favorite Albums of 2015

1. Jamie xx – In Colour

2. Beach Slang – The Things We Do To Find People Like Us

In any year but this one, Beach Slang’s aim-for-the-stars would be a no-brainer for number one in my list. But this has not been just any year, and that’s why it’s firmly entrenched in the two spot.

There’s something to be said about this type of rock and roll. Heart-on-your-sleeve, confessional, young, fucked up. The Hold Steady have done it for years with a decidedly Catholic bent, and Japandroids purified that form most recently with 2012’s Celebration Rock, but there really hasn’t been a band game enough to take that mantle until Beach Slang.

James Alex and company blister through 27 minutes of songs that are simply worth hearing. “Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas” synthesizes the most Westerberg-ian of vocal performances and pairs them with chunkier riffs and splashier drums. “The night is alive/it’s loud and I’m drunk” on “Noisy Heaven”, and “Hard Luck Kid” and “Dirty Lights” may be the best one-two album closer of the year. Or any recent year, for that matter.

3. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

It takes a lot of effort to make a great record sound effortless, but when it comes to Courtney Barnett, I want to believe that her debut released this March simply came in an afternoon.

Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is likely this year’s purest example of a perfect debut – two rockers up front – “Elevator Operator” and this year’s song-of-the-year “Pedestrian At Best”, a rager that sometime soon will take up whatever iteration of “Guitar Hero” the kids play down the road. The crunchy jag of that opening riff and the soaring chorus has a stadium-ready energy that will keep it long past the life of its performer.

“Depreston” is a simple, jangly ballad that makes me think about on the the precipice of true adulthood, what’s felt like an infinite, distant horizon of negotiating what it truly means to be on your own away from what’s familiar and easy, thinking about the time of trading your sneakers and hoodies for blazers and dress shoes on a daily basis.

There’s so much on this album to like, from the rave-ups of “Aqua Profunda!” to the nightmare fuel of “Kim’s Caravan”. Barnett pulls you into her world with the slightest of ease, so much so that you forget you’re in the middle of it all.

4. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love

The confidence of the material on the first Sleater-Kinney album in almost ten years should come as no surprise; just listen to any of their albums. A casual listener with working knowledge of their catalog will be able to tell just what song is from each record. The sonic differences are that apparent on each release.

After the Zeppelin overtones found on 2005’s The Woods, S-K comes back with something more focused and compact than that record, but sacrificing none of the sheer power that comes when these performers get together. No Cities To Love cuts no corners – all the songs here stand up to the band’s previous work. Lead single “Bury Our Friends” with it’s irrepressible gallop and cyclical riffage is a perfect example, as does the wiry “A New Wave”. The title track noodles about with an unforgettable chorus and “Gimme Love” shows the white-hot, thermonuclear power of Corin Tucker’s vocals. It’s everything you could want from a Sleater-Kinney record, but in typical fashion, never what you’d expect. That’s perfect.

5. Craig Finn – Faith In The Future

It would be disingenuous to write about this record without directly editorializing, so I’ll put it this way. With The Hold Steady existing in somewhat of a grey area, Faith In The Future, like Finn’s band, seems to center on uncertainty of all things. Life, death, people in transition, problems left unsolved or what’s to come after we leave this world.

For myself personally, this record has transformed many times over since I first heard it. From at first what sounded like a hearty sonic departure from Finn’s 2012 debut, Clear Heart Full Eyes, it’s turned into a record that encapsulates my deepest sympathies. If In Colour is the sound of my year, Faith In The Future are the words.

6. Wilco – Star Wars

Star Wars, the free surprise release album from Wilco is the band’s best record since 2007’s meditative Sky Blue Sky, and certainly their most noisy and unconventional since A Ghost Is Born. What’s great about Star Wars is that it’s the sound of a band reshuffling the deck for the first time in a while.

It’s a jumble of guitars that pan left and right, riffs that stick like glue, disarming tempo changes and staggering brevity. Clocking in only at 34 minutes, it’s almost tantalizing in how short it is. Just when it feels safe to peg this band with a certain sound, this album comes from out of nowhere. That claim doesn’t feel that safe to say anymore.

7. Hop Along – Painted Shut

The second album by Hop Along is a perfect showcase for singer Frances Quinlan, all in her dexterous-voiced glory, bending, pushing, pulling in all directions. It’s a true marvel, backed with punky, propulsive guitars that careen around her rough edges. Opener “The Knock” and the chunky “Powerful Man” are perfect examples of it. Painted Shut is something truly special and shows a band on the edge of something really great.

8. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Through Sufjan’s long and varied catalogue, there’s a wild amount of material that is designed to challenge his listeners – from the meditative Seven Swans the complexities of Illinois and the freakiness of The Age of Adz. That’s really just the cliff notes version of some of the stuff he does.

Anyway, as a slightly-more-than-casual listener, I don’t think there’s anything that quite touches the barren-soul nature of Carrie & Lowell. It’s a portrait of the artist at 40, drawing heavily on the theme of loss. Every track on this eleven-song collection is purposeful and finely tuned to break your heart. Just listen to “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” and try to come out of it unaffected. You won’t.

9. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

To Pimp A Butterfly is a bit of a confounding listen, a record without a true access point, which, in a way, is part of its charm. The follow up to 2012’s perfect good kid, m.A.A.d. city doesn’t feel of this world. There’s an alarming amount of music on this release in conjunction with Kendrick’s rhymes. It’s an unbelievably dense piece of work that demands your attention with listen after listen.

It’s an album that makes you want to work for its message. As with any of his releases, Kendrick feels steps ahead of his time. I don’t feel the impact of this one has truly been felt yet, as we’re all still experiencing the aftershocks. Check back with me when the next Star Wars movie comes out. Until then, we’re gonna be alright.

10. Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy

A 93-minute, 29 rock opera about manic depression. Mammoth, moving and hits all the right notes. I don’t think there’s much else to say other than it may be the finest example of a concept seen through from beginning to end – and actually delivering. It rocks, it hurts, it’s everything in between. Just listen to it.