Waxahatchee Return with the Career-Defining Out in the Storm

If you’ve followed the career of Katie Crutchfield and her albums under the name Waxahatchee, it’s clear that she never rests on her laurels. Whether it’s the lo-fi intimacy of American Weekend, the assured full-band sound of Cerulean Salt or the atmospherics of Ivy Tripp, each record shows Crutchfield confidently adapting new elements to her sound. On her latest, Out in the Storm, Crutchfield doubles down, making Waxahatchee’s best album to date.

The album was recorded last December in Philadelphia with producer John Agnello, best known for his records with Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth and The Hold Steady. Crutchfield employed her sister Allison Crutchfield on keyboards and percussion, Katherine Simonetti on bass, Ashley Arnwine on drums and Katie Harkin on lead guitar. Agnello suggested that the band record most of the music live in the studio, which brings a heavier guitar element to Waxahatchee songs than ever found before.

“Never Been Wrong,” the album’s opener, makes this abundantly clear. A distorted, plunging riff form the backbone of the song as Crutchfield’s voice takes front and center in the verse. It’s an awesome loud-quiet-loud rock song, full of driving guitars, pummeling bass and an insistent beat. Plus, “Everyone will hear me complain/And everyone will pity my pain”is going to be a great refrain to sing live, an eternal wink-and-nod fuck you to whoever inspired it.

Songs like “Silver” sound like a blue-album era Weezer song with “woo-ooh” backing vocals and a muscular riff with a runaway lead guitar on top. Here, Crutchfield sings “If I turn to stone/The whole world keeps turning’/I went out in the storm/And I’m never returning”. The sound and “world has turned” lyric similarity aside, it’s a three-and-a-half-minute power-pop blast that sounds like being over a bad relationship and wanting to get away from it.

Despite the brawny sound of much of Out in the Storm, elements of Crutchfield’s earlier songwriting find a place here, albeit improved. Both “Recite Remorse” and “Sparks Fly” are built on beds of keys and percussion that wouldn’t sound out of place on Ivy Tripp, but here they feel less weightless and more grounded, something only a seasoned musician and performer could pull off. “Sparks Fly” with brushed drums and swirling acoustic guitar at the forefront is one of the album’s best songs, both a beautiful ballad and a showcase for Crutchfield to do what she does so wonderfully – write songs of pure emotionalism that convey both vulnerability and strength.

That’s not the only example. There are the moments that just plain break your heart, the plaintive and spare “A Little More”. It may be one of the best recent songs describing what it is like to fall out of love. “I move delicately/I slowly choose my words” she starts “when my presence is felt/I’ll fly away just like a bird/a jagged truth left unheard” hurt plenty. Then she illustrates what it’s like watching the flame go out. “And I live a little more/and I die a little more.” It’s an unforgettable moment.

Out in the Storm is the best work from a musician and songwriter who has grown up band-by-band, album-by-album in front of an audience through much of her adult life. Everything up until this point has shown Katie Crutchfield’s ability and brilliance, but finally, she’s created a work that’s a complete statement, a seminal work for longtime fans and a starting point for both new ones.

It’s an album that represents the point when Waxahatchee’s ambition and ability and confidence run alongside one another. Where she goes next is anyone’s guess. The bar has been raised. Out in the Storm sets it high. There’s no doubt to believe she meets it next time around.

Out in the Storm is out now on Merge.

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.

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.