Mourning View

morning viewEarlier this week, Morning View by Incubus turned fifteen. While it may not have aged as well as some, it very much played a part in my musical development and remains one of my favorite records. It’s a good one, and one that somehow manages to sound of its time and completely out of it all at once.

October 2001 was a bottomless, scary time. 9/11 had just happened, the country was literally putting the pieces back together. Every news report fixated on the wreckage at Ground Zero. I was a sophomore in high school, cognizant that something massive had taken a few hundred miles from me – but I didn’t know anyone that had been affected, or anyone that I knew that was directly impacted. But you could tell in the air that things were about to change in a big way.

Rock music at that time was probably in one of the worst periods as it ever had been – rap rock was still very much en vogue – and I was still consisting on a steady diet of whatever I heard on the radio and was still months away from hearing about a local Chicago site called Pitchfork Media. Incubus, at the time was not far separated from the pack of the rap rock bands, a shapeless group of Southern California dudebros with loud guitars and a dude who sang with soul but none of the chutzpah. 1999’s Make Yourself was a bonafide hit, containing “Pardon Me” and “Drive” both nice singles, especially the latter, which appealed to the sensitivity and found in 14-year-old boys living in the suburbs. These songs have somehow have survived through the years on alt-rock radio in varying forms, which is kind of amazing, considering so many of their peers have not.

For their follow up, Incubus famously decamped to a house in Malibu on a street called “Morning View Drive”. The resulting album from the sessions is something that feels a little spacier and what is probably best described as “pocket ambience”. (Also, before we go any further, I want to mention this was the first and last record I pre-ordered at Sam Goody at Spring Hill Mall.)

For those weightless moments, there are also the hard-edged rock ones – “Nice to Know You” and “Circles” with punishing guitars, “Wish You Were Here,” one of last decade’s very best alt rock singles, all ‘Bob Marley poster on the walls of my room at my parents house” poetry aside. Songs like “Warning” with a slow-burn churn and “Echo” were soft without being entirely saccharine. “Aqueous Transmission,” with its use of a Chinese instrument called the pipa, was unlike anything any teenage suburban midwesterner had ever heard.

Somehow, in pre-9/11 America, Incubus made a record that soothed what was about to come. Released a month after the attacks, It was angry and sensitive, but nuanced enough for teenagers to find meaning. It was art for people who didn’t really get art, and was a direct route to making new friends and relating through music at school.

Incubus never again made a record as balanced as Morning View. What has come since has always been intriguing (seriously, Light Grenades, people), nor did they ever make something as fluid, either. It’s a record that legitimately feels hazy, capturing the mood of its era, but somehow cutting through the gritted-teeth anxiety of a terrible time. That’s why I remember it.

John K. Samson’s Winter Wheat is Part Postscript, New Beginning

jks_winterwheatI dont claim to know the entire Weakerthans catalog, or really know much about John K. Samson, but I can tell you that the release of “Winter Wheat” is an album that hews closest to a new Weakerthans release as we may ever get. Perhaps that’s why he utilizes the band’s former rhythm section throughout the release.

Samson’s work is kind of a curiosity to an American like myself. Pastoral descriptions of Canada, a place that is easy to generalize as one-note, nice and America-lite, are always fascinating. He’s a songwriter whose turn of phrase strikes the balance of sensitive and strange – opener “Select All Delete” begins with the lyrics “That hashtag wants me dead/but I don’t mind.” Virtute the cat reappears, a reoccuring character from Samson’s Weakerthans songs A warning: that song, “Virtute at Rest,” is a goddamn heartbreaker.

Samson’s lyrical prowess is not done justice through an album review. He’s definitely one of the world’s greatest living songwriters, lesser known to a mass audience, ducking out and re-emerging every few years with songs that have earned the right to be dissected, quoted and shared by those that know his work best. Whether “Winter Wheat” is truly the postscript to the Weakerthans or is the next evolution in the long musical history of John K. Samson remains to be seen. We’ll know eventually. For now, take your time, listen over and over and pass it on. Like all great stories, they’re meant to be shared. “Winter Wheat” is one of them.

Winter Wheat is out today on ANTI-.

Bon Iver’s ’22, A Million’ is Fascinating Transformation

phppjpToday, Bon Iver releases their third album and first in five years, “22, A Million”.

Justin Vernon started the project in 2007 pretty much as a guy with an acoustic guitar, and pretty quickly morphed into something that was using a lot of digital manipulation – one song on the follow up EP, “Blood Bank” is literally just him building layers of his voice with autotune. Years later, Kanye West would find this song “Woods,” and use it as the template for “Lost in the World”.

On 2011’s “Bon Iver,” another about-face. Here was an album of deliberate soft rock-as-soul, lush, organic soundscapes on this side of Bruce Hornsby. Deeply touching, somehow feeling both in and completely out of time.

But now, with this new record, another transformation. Obscured by technology, bending the realm of what’s physically possible through a literally invented filter – his engineer literally created an instrument for this album called the Messina – Justin Vernon presents another chapter of the Bon Iver story that feels familiar, 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. I am always 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. There’s always a mystery of what goes on in his head. 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.

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.