What I’m Listening To: February 2018

Lucy Dacus – Historian

I first heard about Lucy Dacus the way a lot of people hear about new bands: from the playlist of the 2016 VP-nominee, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. Seriously. He included her song “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” on a streaming playlist. Turns out his daughter is friends with Dacus. Obligatory next door neighborly plug it wasn’t: Dacus’s 2016 debut No Burden is seriously great. Historian is even better.

The Richmond based singer-songwriter builds on the confidence and songcraft of her debut by re-teaming with producer Collin Pastore, which was then mixed with John Congleton, who is known for his work with St. Vincent, among others. The result is a record that feels weightier and enveloping in sound opposed to the lo-fi sounds of No Burden. Dacus is 22, but the rich tone of her voice begets a singer whose doing it much longer. From the chugging opener “Night Shift,” a classic breakup song – “You got a 9 to 5, so I’ll take the night shift/And I’ll never see you again if I can help it/In five years I hope the songs feel like covers/Dedicated to new lovers” the sweeping, gorgeous “Body to Flame” and pop bite of “Next of Kin” – “I am at peace with my death/I can go back to bed”. It’s a career defining collection that’s worthier than the words written here, or like she says on “Addictions” – “invest your time in what’s worthwhile”. Historian might be the album of the year.

Titus Andronicus – A Productive Cough

If you’ve followed Titus Andronicus for a few record cycles, you know they tend to work on an odd-even structure: They start with a relatively straightforward rock record (2008’s The Airing of Grievances) coupled by an ambitious high concept record (2010’s all-timer The Monitor). Repeat with 2012’s Local Business and follow it up with the even more ambitious The Most Lamentable Tragedy, released in 2015. The band’s latest A Productive Cough seems like the most personal record yet from Patrick Stickles, something that plays less like a shambolic punk collection and more like “Exile on the New Jersey Turnpike”. “Number One (In New York)” is a bombastic opener that never really crests, while “Real Talk” feels a lot like the Stones “Rip This Joint”. “Crass Tattoo” pretty much eschews Stickles’s vocal, instead, sung by Megg Farrell who brings the house down. There’s also a really fun cover of “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan that Stickles changes the tense to first person. It’s totally unnecessary, but what really is here? Ultimately, it’s a minor work in the Titus canon that will have its fans and detractors.

Caleb Caudle – Crushed Coins

If you haven’t heard Caleb Caudle yet, start here. The North Carolina native has been making records for years, but on his eighth, Crushed Coins, his classicist country voice bends to explore different genres. Whether it’s the Laurel Canyon expanse of “NYC in the Rain” or the 60’s psych elements of “Empty Arms,” Caudle winds them together with ease. Guided by the steady hand of producer Jon Ashley, Caudle’s made his best record yet. There’s so many great moments, but the stripped down acoustic ballad “Until It’s Over”, is probably the sweetest. “There’s a light inside of her/cuts through my darkness/steals away these broken blues/punch for punch I’ve got an honest love/it’s true,” Caudle sings. He nails the words exactly. Way to put the rest of us to shame, dude.

Also check out

Screaming Females – All at Once
Turnstile – Time & Space
Camp Cope – How to Socialise & Make Friends

Superchunk’s What a Time to Be Alive Handles the Turbulence with Confidence

The world feels like it’s coming apart at the seams, some new scandal or piece of terrible news hits daily, or sometimes with even more frequency. It takes more effort to simply keep up than it does just to be able to digest the news. The result is mind numbing. Then you look to find respite from these things. There’s music. Superchunk knows this well, and somehow they found a way to channel the rage and anxiety of this turbulent time in history into their 11th album, the sardonically titled What a Time To be Alive.

Since the band’s return to recording at the top of the decade after taking most of the ’00’s off, 2010’s Majesty Shredding reintroduced listeners to Superchunk as a punk band with power-pop leanings, but imbued with an immediacy that at times make them sound like a different band from their earlier years. This continues on the album’s opener, the title track, a cascading ripper which pretty much puts this administration in the crosshairs – “There’s a crooked line that runs/through every crease in this map/and you want to take us all the way back” singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan sings. There’s virtriol in his voice – by the time the chorus hits “the scum, the shame, the fucking lies/oh what a time to be alive”, there’s barely a moment to catch your breath.

Just as that song halts, the punk stomp of “Lost My Brain” begins. McCaughan echoes the sentiment felt by so many pretty early – “I surrendered to the flow of shit/I gave up all my all my sleep/and I didn’t learn anything from it”. It’s a sobering lyric, but the rhythm section of bassist Laura Ballance and drummer Jon Wurster are pummeling, keeping the band buoyant despite the desperation of the lyric. If it already wasn’t clear,”Lost My Brain” makes it crystal – this is an album about trying to make it day by day living under the Trump administration.

Yet, the record is hardly downcast. McCaughan is pissed, but many of the album’s angry statements are filtered through classic Superchunk – the hooky as hell earworm “Bad Choices” with guitarist Jim Wilbur’s zig-zag leads and the similarly catchy “Dead Photographers”. Among these is the soaring standout “Erasure,” which is like a Merge Records roster showcase with Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee and Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields guest on background vocals. What these songs all have in common is that Quicksilver energy and pitch perfect execution of a band who has played together for decades.

Perhaps that is what makes What a Time to be Alive a great record. Nearly thirty years in, Superchunk are not only still making music, but they’ve made a vital record that rivals even their classic material. It’s a near impossible task, yet they keep accomplishing it time and time again. Now, during a time where getting up every day means feeling like you have to brace yourself for something terrible, there’s a record that comes out swinging in the face of that ugliness. It’s an album referencing a time and a place that somehow feels timeless. Superchunk’s exuberance and confidence in pushing forward is a good example that everyone can learn from.

What a Time to Be Alive is out February 16 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.

Sheer Mag’s Need To Feel Your Love is Uncut Bliss for Rock Scholars

Sheer Mag’s debut LP Need To Feel Your Love is not for cynics or the cold of heart—rather, this is music for humid summer nights and the kind of dumb, hopeless romanticism that you know you’re absolutely too old to be clinging to, but still keep tucked away, just in case. The band continues the grand tradition of cheap beer, dim lights and the kind of sneering but soulful approach to our beloved rock ‘n’ roll that’ll make you miss them well before the lights come up.

Much is been made (rightfully) of the band’s encyclopedic grasp of 20th century rock (and funk, and soul, and disco) tropes and tricks, and much like those bands of yore, whether not you get anything out of it in 2017 comes down to whether or not you want to.The good news? There’s plenty of reason to want to.

Frontwoman Tina Halladay’s showstopping vocal delivery is reason enough to hang around, and the rest of the band shifts stylistically on a dime—think of the best cover bands or classic rock DJs, and the way they can somehow convince you to mouth along to “Wonderwall” for the nth time once they’ve got the crowd where they want ‘em. That fluency is obvious from the start in the one-two punch of charging leadoff track “Meet Me In The Street” and the subsequent grooving title track.

Much like the best live performances, the band starts to relax and take more chances as time wears on. The latter half of the album sees more welcome stylistic divergences like “Pure Desire,” a slinkier, more laid-back affair that sounds, well, exactly like the title. Requisite Chill Song “‘Til You Find The One” showcases Halladay’s voice mostly without the reverb and distortion that it’s coated in for the other songs. Much like the band at large, it’s great to finally hear her mastery of her instrument outside of the more lo-fi sound of previous efforts.

Again, your mileage may vary, depending on your willingness to suspend disbelief and let the band take you where they will. If I were you, I’d hop in the backseat and let them steer for a while.

Need To Feel Your Love is out now on WILSUNS RC.