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.

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.

White Reaper’s The World’s Best American Band is Not Just a Clever Title

You’d think that a band that titled their album The World’s Best American Band may be getting ahead of themselves. But not every band is White Reaper. They might have just done it.

The second album from the Louisville, Kentucky natives somehow takes elements of ear-pleasing 70’s hard rock a-la Van Halen and a very coked-up Aerosmith, but imbues a punk immediacy that basically says ‘we can’t fuck with these theatrics if we can’t get out of this jam in 3 minutes or less’ – only two songs pass four minutes – one of those just barely does it.

The album’s best song is “Judy French,” a simple love song full of compressed guitars and keyboards that dance together with vocalist/guitarist Tony Esposito’s wild wail. Just as it sounds like the main riff is about to end, another grows in its place like some sonic hydra before launching into a blistering solo. It is one of 2017’s best songs, no matter what else is released this year.

“Little Silver Cross” slows things down a bit on a bed of synth keys, but the pace picks up quickly edging toward the chorus, as Esposito seems to almost command singing ‘too slow’ – the chorus bursts into something sounding a little euphoric – the message going from ‘too slow’ to ‘you gotta be good to yourself’. It’s a great catch your breath moment on a record with serious power riffage.

Songs like “The Stack” disarm with its glam stomp – the rhythm section on this album is VICIOUS – before it launches into some serious barroom piano shit. Sure, the lyrics indicate this is song about boys and girls in America – just like so many others on this record, but it doesn’t matter. They all just rule.

If I’m being honest, it really doesn’t matter where you start on The World’s Best American Band. Any point is fine, and that is not a usual recommendation. I’ve spent the past few weeks playing it start to finish, finish to start, and even shuffled it for shits and giggles. It’s a rock and roll prism that refracts its light in any direction. Sometimes the most revelatory things you come back to don’t really to teach you anything. Just like Esposito says on “Tell Me” – sometimes you just need to hear about “the mean kids crashing the bars and the good kids torching their cars”. Depth is for the birds.

The World’s Best American Band is out now on Polyvinyl Records.

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.

Every Song Was Right: 10 Years of Boys and Girls in America

dc69676781d3af88-holdsteadycoverToday marks the tenth anniversary of Boys and Girls in America by The Hold Steady. Even the casual acquaintance has heard me stump for this album pretty much any occasion I get. But it’s the most meaningful and impactful musical document I know, and quite literally changed the trajectory of my life. I went from mopey college kid to someone who found a sense of purpose and community along the way. Of course that’s not without speed bumps, but that’s a different story.

I have so many thoughts about the record itself that are best said loudly and in person, preferably while playing the songs. This is still a common practice. Simply put, it’s a marvel of rock and roll construction: “Stuck Between Stations,” is quite possibly THE best leadoff rock song in history – the opening lyrics reveal the thesis: “There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right…Boys and Girls in America have such a sad time together.” Crashing guitars, dancing pianos, a tight-as-hell rhythm section and Craig Finn’s lyrics and BOOM, we’re in to the thick of one of the most essential albums ever.

What I loved about this record as a 20-year old has morphed over time. While I loved the songs and the lyrics that made great Facebook statuses (I’m learning this daily thanks to the ‘On This Day’ feature) it’s been so much less about the music and more about the people. That’s continued for a decade.

My college friends sort of tapered off in the months after the album’s release, so I joined the band’s message board in 2007. There, I found a bunch of like-minded individuals and families filing scene reports from all over the states and Canada, sometimes Europe, or proselytizing for bands I’d never heard of – Drive-By Truckers, Lucero, some group called the Mountain Goats. It became a place of community and education. These were lawyers, students, photographers, people with insisted on being called by their pen names instead of their real names, a lady who talked about how much she liked a group called the “Ass Ponys”, bible salesmen and self-described “rabble rousers”. I’d never met anyone like these people before. But they welcomed me in, for better or worse.

The next year, I started traveling to see the band. I’d crash in strangers hotels when our car would get locked in a garage overnight, get rained on all day in an abandoned pool and meet my best friend in the process, end up in parts of North America I’d otherwise have no business being in. Friends of friends I’d met through the band would help me move to New York. I’d forget to close my mouth more than once when throwing confetti and gambled for the first time in a casino in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin. There are so many other stories, but they’re just not fit for public consumption.

I’d get to know the group, slowly, some of the members better than the others, and be able to call them friends or temporary roommates. For someone who has seen them at such an exaggerated clip, their good-naturedness and trust that I was not completely insane was always appreciated. That extends to their crew, an extremely patient bunch that went out of their way countless times to be kind to us in whatever city we were in. Eventually, we’d all work together, which still is a total dream come true.

screen-shot-2016-10-02-at-8-21-11-pmAs with time, I’m grateful for all the people that have come in and out of my life. So many of these are true friends I’ve been able to lean on when things did not look that sunny. Some I’ve met in person once or twice, or not at all, but we maintain that closeness. You know who you are. Growing older along with a band and its fans doesn’t really happen a lot, especially when you’re just starting your 20’s. I know many times and for many years I was not the best version of myself. So, if you’re reading this and knowing what I’m talking about, thanks for sticking around.

Ultimately, Boys and Girls in America is the story of the people that The Hold Steady brought together through their music, who built a community and changed the lives of a lot of people. As I look back on the past ten years, I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but through the totality of the experience of just playing some songs, I’ve grown into someone that I like being. It’s given me so many people important to my everyday life, incredible experiences and stories that no one else will ever have, and mostly, a freedom to just be who I am and love what I love. When we eventually dry up and crumble into dust, hopefully it will inspire a new group of people to do the same.