Broken Social Scene’s Hug of Thunder is the same old party – and that’s okay

My wife and I were married on our college campus on a warm Saturday in August. It wasn’t a convenient spot for many of our guests, but they came anyway, arriving days, hours, minutes before the ceremony. As a reward of sorts for the early birds, Sarah and I hosted a karaoke party at one of our old haunts, a sports bar just on the edge of town. It was an incredible sight to see all our friends together, to join our cliques, to celebrate something powerful with music and beer and pretzel bites and wings. But, now, as I remember that night, I’m a little sad. I don’t know when, or if, all those people will ever be in a room again.

Since their establishment, Broken Social Scene were Canada’s musical Avengers*, putting members’ musical projects at the center of the indie world and creating some of the most jangly, expansive pop rock of the aughts. So, when BSS went on hiatus in 2010, their fans must have felt the same melancholy pang I did at the end of that hot August night, like some combination of air and light had left the room.

Luckily for those fans at least, the collective has finally returned with Hug of Thunder, an album that drops listeners right back into the melting pot of Toronto’s indie scene. The album has all the BSS hallmarks: melodies to spare, dissonant shifts in tone, and a shade of political and social rage that just colors the lyrics just enough to tap your maple tree.

That mellow ire is showcased on “Protest Song,” an album highlight that frames the end of a relationship as a sort of regime change. Emily Haines’ vocals, always a crucial ingredient in the BSS alchemy, are sweet and clear here, like harmonium keys. But when she starts cramming too many syllables into the chorus – “We’re just the latest in the longest rank and file list ever to exist in the history of the protest song” – the controlled chaos the band is known for rears its head to perfect effect.

Hug of Thunder absolutely soars when it plays content off context like that. Another track, “Gonna Get Better,” kicks off with the best lyrics on the album: “Future’s not what it used to be / we still got to go there”. The cynicism on display is tempered by the fact that the song sounds like Adele-produced-by-Aaron-Dessner. It feels like we’ve heard this song before as a kiss-off to a former lover, but it hits us in new ways by casting the world’s present political malaise as the ex.

Despite the bite, there’s still beauty on display. Some of the album’s strongest moments are when it slows down and lets you get lost in the soundscape. “Skyline” and “Please Take Me With You” are the winners here, and it’s impressive that after nearly twenty years as a band, BSS can still make simple lyrics like “Please take me with you / I want your heart” cut so deeply.

While coming back from a long break with songs this tight is a win, BSS newbies might find themselves at a loss with Hug; in the past seven years, a glut of more accessible lo-fi indie pop acts rushed to fill the broken Broken Social Scene scene. If Best Coast, Wavves or Alvvays are your touchstones for this kind of sound, the “so what” of this comeback could remain elusive. “Halfway Home” will have listeners punching air, but BSS doesn’t do the pure sugar hooks those bands built careers on. That’s not to say Hug of Thunder is a monotone slog – it’s not – but rather to point out that it rewards active listening. It’s sounds a little like the album cover looks: a bright white blur, with textures that come into focus as you get closer.

The record got me thinking about that night out at karaoke. As much as I would’ve loved to sing silly songs with my friends into eternity, all parties end. And as we all get older, we realize that what happens between parties matters just as much as what happens at them. But having everyone together that night reinvigorated a lot of relationships, just as a new BSS album always does. After all, the best part of their work is that when you’re done with it, you’re pumped to go catch up with projects from the whole crew – Kevin, Brendan, Metric, Feist, Stars, Len (sort of). The whole point of BSS is that the list goes on and the members of the collective have songs for you for days.

Hug of Thunder is a success for BSS, even if it doesn’t reach the heights of some of their earlier work. It reminds us why this band is special, and that it’s for the same reason that seeing all your friends at the bar, the reunion or around a picnic table in someone’s backyard is a lifting, shiny experience. This record is voices you know having conversations you’ve had before, just all a bit older and wiser. It reminds us that growing up isn’t so bad if you still remember to get together with friends now and then.

*Or Alpha Flight, I guess

Hug of Thunder is out now on Arts & Crafts / City Slang

Great Grandpa’s Plastic Cough is Familiar in Unfamiliar Times

If you’re anything like most Americans (or, y’know, fans of civilization) these days, your mood probably swings wildly between blinding, bitter disgust, full-blown existential terror and the sense of being a burned out human husk with increasingly distant memories of a time when the future didn’t seem like something you needed to be terrified of.

The notion that we were gonna get through 2016, dust ourselves off and snap right back into a time before Everything Sucked Forever didn’t play out exactly how we hoped, huh? The world turns, people get born, people get dead, and there’s all that shit that goes on in between. But there’s a newly pervasive gallows humor that’s soaked into everyday life, since, well, how else are you gonna deal?

All this is to say that when Great Grandpa vocalist Alex Menne murmurs “All my friends are almost dead,” a minute or so into “All Things Must Behave” from their new LP Plastic Cough, you’ll get where she’s coming from.

The Seattle group is comprised of Menne, guitarist/vocalist Patrick Goodwin, bassist Carrie Miller, drummer Cam LaFlam, and guitarist Dylan Hanwright. Plastic Cough is a collection of songs that careen wildly from cautiously optimistic to burnout blues at about the same pace as the collective conscience of rational people who simply don’t want the world to end.

Menne’s voice has been rightfully compared to Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis (a compliment of the highest order), and really, the comparison is apt for most of the band’s offerings here—an array of gleefully bludgeoning fuzz riffs and strategically deployed dissonance. The production isn’t necessarily slick—it’s gently hazy, which imbues the upbeat but sinister shamble pop of singles “Teen Challenge” and “Expert Eraser” with a just-holding-together vibe that makes the band’s underlying pop sensibility all the more staggering.

Those tracks are catchy and fun, but standout track and second single “Fade” is something different altogether. Goodwin and Hanwright alternate between interlocking tapped melodic lines and slamming choruses while Menne puts on a contemporary rock vocal clinic. It’s a showcase for the entire band, but LaFlam and Miller deserve special notice for their ability to keep a groove, no matter how rollercoaster-like the arrangements get. There’s not a bass slide or snare crack out of place in the entire thing.

“[Fade] is about “the dulling of pleasure that comes with repeated exposure to the same experiences, locations, persons, etc. and the small ways in which we struggle — and often fail — to find newness,” the band told The FADER. “It’s the feeling of knowing you need to make a change but not being sure where to start, constantly looking for the next rush.” Sound familiar?

At the risk of spoiling the ending, if you can make it through “28 J’S L8R” without at least a hint of a smile on your face, well, maybe we are lost. In a world where everything means everything all the time and most of that meaning ends up being godawful, a song that’s funny and dumb feels like a desperately needed envoy from the world I want to live in.

It also feels familiar, and that gives me hope.

Plastic Cough is out today on Double Double Whammy.

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.

Japandroids Return with the Right Album at the Right Time

It’s a weird feeling to be in transition: constantly thinking about where to go next, the thrill of excitement just out of reach, and possibility feeling so endless that it’s overwhelming. What do you do?

With Near to the Wild Heart of Life, Japandroids first album in almost five years, that feeling of being flux is everywhere – literally. Song titles contain words like “near” “to” and one song is simply named “North East South West”. It’s a record about growing up, moving on, and exploding the tiny moments in life that feel so much bigger in retrospect than they do in the moment.

Both 2009’s Post-Nothing and 2012’s Celebration Rock faced some criticism for sounding somewhat piecemeal in their sequencing. The latest album represents the first time the band feels like they’ve done something deliberate – and it works. As two guys from Vancouver bashing out some of the most euphoric jams that could be made two people at a time. By slowing down and looking a little more inward, they have made something that really feels like an album, as they’ve detailed in notes for the release. “Side A and side B each follow their own loose narrative. Taken together as one, they form an even looser narrative, with the final song on side B acting as an epilogue.” While they’ve succeeded, they may have done it at the cost of throwing off any fans who were expecting Celebration Rock II.

The production is larger and the songs have a sense of space not found on previous Japandroids records. Make no mistake, this record still has plenty of the fiery romanticism and the hooks that made the band so irresistible, but there is simple separation in the sounds to take that all in. There’s prominent synthesizers – the warped 7-minute “Arc of Bar” is a great example– and then another sound not found on previous Japandroids releases – acoustic guitar strums on the gorgeous “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will”. Just these small touches alone show that the band is taking small steps to distance themselves the bash-and-blaze chaos of the first two albums.

Like every Japandroids record, this one feels kind of like a small miracle. They are a band who feels like they’re just on the verge of disappearing at any time. They make some of the most immediate and visceral sounding rock and roll and really seem to take that role seriously. Perhaps that’s why they take long gaps between albums with nary a hint of when they’ll resurface.

In a sense, Near to the Wild Heart of Life reminds us of some truths that we all eventually face. Everything is constantly changing. Right now is the youngest you’ll ever be. Eventually, we have to all take chances if we want evolve. Sure, the album is not perfect, and some experiments don’t work. That sounds like life. It won’t bring us back to the time where we felt infinite. But when it’s over, it’s a small reminder to keep going in hope that next day will be better than the last. That in itself is a victory – at this moment in time, that is exactly what we need.

Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is due out January 27, 2017 on Anti- Records, with a special early release for vinyl on January 24.

Four Days In The Life

I’m finally starting to decompress from a week in New York (that really began in Chicago the day before with improbably sharing a photo with Bruce Springsteen) where I saw the Hold Steady four times in four days at Brooklyn Bowl. As expected, it was an incredible (albeit sometimes stressful) experience, but that’s another story for a different day. What struck me is so much how so many people I came into contact with were really riding the wave of “nostalgia,” if you can call the celebration of a ten-year record just that. I suppose it’s possible, or it’s a sign of me aging, when I talked to more than one person that lamented for not being around for ‘the scene’, a series of what seemed to be halcyon days that really weren’t, more a lot of good times punctured by bad decisions or inexperience, but still remembered the same. Either way, I didn’t quite feel a hearkening back to the past as much as I did really love seeing so many lapsed fans that kind of tuned out at the turn of the decade when the future of the band seemed a little murky.

Photo by Rich Tarbell

Photo by Rich Tarbell

I mean, I get that, the early ‘10’s Hold Steady was a series of experiments that didn’t quite gel completely, trying to make due with Franz Nicolay’s departure and redefine a sound. But what we DID get is Steve Selvidge, a member of the band whose presence seems so vital it’s hard to imagine what the band would be like without him – the fact that Franz has returned to the fold with Steve in tow is not an abdication of what truly made The Hold Steady great in the first place, instead, it’s an embarrassment of riches. (I have quietly referred to this wishful thinking-turned-reality lineup as SuperSteady for many years, and oh my word, they did they NOT disappoint.) What these shows, these three reissues have told us is that The Hold Steady, in whatever form they are in these days and going forward are still capital-F, capital-D Fucking Dangerous.

Yes, they’re my favorite band, of course I’m going to say that. I defy anyone who has caught any of this year’s seven gigs to tell me different. They don’t really need to make any new music right now. The canon has been established. How mindblowing is it to hear Franz add genius flourishes to songs that he didn’t play on? Harmonica on “Sweet Part of the City”? Brilliant keys on “Spinners” (still in the running for one of THS’s best-ever songs) and the mind melt of bringing himself to the dance on “The Weekenders” which is surviving the years as one of the band’s weirdest compositions from a not-too happy era.

I have a stake in it, I know. November 30’s encore of “The Ballad of the Midnight Hauler,” a song I’ve gently requested from Craig for at least seven years before finally giving up, was a major surprise, something I’d never thought I’d hear again, much less get a shout out for my birthday. While I’ve been recognized before (it never stops feeling amazing), nothing tops that. I can’t stop smiling about it. It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me.

The thing that keeps flashing back to me are the faces. The faces of all of these people I’ve gotten to know over the years, whether in person by chance through the internet but never in person until now and countless others. I’ve watched all these people transform of the years, grow up, get older, turn into better versions of themselves, remember their journeys, remember mine, and remember it all still feels pretty sweet. I hope to never forget that, forget you, and hope that somehow, someway, we’ll all find each other again no matter what becomes of this band. It was a celebration of you guys, us guys and this beautiful, messy thing we all created together. That’s an amazing thing.

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.