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album reviews

1/29/18

The past few days, every time I reach for my headphones to listen to music I’ve had to listen to a track from the new record from The Dangerous Summer. I don’t know why I was anticipating this more — I’ve loved this band and their lyrics and their style for years –but it kind of snuck up on me. Maybe I’ve entirely lost the ability to keep track of new releases, at least with the fervor I once did. Maybe my mental energy is bogged down by the world’s problems, personal stressors and the general, numbing myopia of adulthood, and it simply doesn’t have any more space to hold the same exuberance for new release calendars the way it once did. But since everything works out for a reason, I instead find myself pleasantly surprised and blissfully lost in new songs.

When I first heard The Dangerous Summer’s Reach for the Sun I was living alone in a small town at my first job out of college. I was figuring things out, I was terrified of something on a daily basis with varying degrees of rationality on my side. The songs on that record made me feel simultaneously understood and strong, as if the trials I was having in my life were the standard fare for pursuing a dream. I learned it by heart, then War Paint dropped the next year and I had even more of a story to follow. Sonically I love what they do as much as the lyrics — there are guitars that thrash, drums that pound and melodies that soar, all the trademark alt-rock/pop punk trademarks. But don’t let genre labels be misleading — there is more substance here than you’ll find in many associated bands, both in the way they build their songs and the darkness of the soul that flits at the edges of some songs and downright dominates others.

The self-titled release from this year is as mature in themes as those tackled on “Golden Record” but with a little more energy behind it — maybe it’s the time off since the band was last active that gave them an extra boost, maybe it’s the precarious world of modern adulthood that I myself am in the throes of experiencing that has provided some sort of muse. There’s a lot of love and romance on this record, but it’s not blind and naive, it’s weathered and worn — like on “Valium,” which seems to beg for the return of the most familiar love when the worst of the loneliness has passed. “Wild Again and” “Fire” are my favorite tracks so far, the first has an insistent longing for the present with my favorite lyrics, and the second and third is straight from the TDS playbook under “Personal Calls To Action.” I’ve been putting on “Live Forever” a lot too, it’s from a similar standpoint with a bit of a brooding beat to contrast some really stellar vocal performances.

It’s that kind of talking-to-himself persepctive that AJ Perdomo does best that I love so well. He reflects on the good and bad in his life with the same kind of clarity and always comes back to the same conclusions — to be steady in one’s own path, to keep to the beat of your own drum, but not be so hellbent on staring at your own two feet that you lose sight of the world around you. It is the exact message and inspiration I needed to find in the start of this calendar year, and I’m so grateful for the surprise, for the warmth of something familiar to melt into.

“But those legs drag again,
I feel them taking over now; walk again.
I might be coming closer,
so tired and dead.
I let emotion carry me back again-
and every road has given me something.”

~Fire,
The Dangerous Summer, The Dangerous Summer

6/20/17

Anyone who put out their best songs or albums of the year lists before listening in full to Lorde’s Melodrama is most definitely missing something. She’s created one of the most stunning pieces of art to hit mainstream audiences this year — especially from a female artist. She offers a reclamation for any girl that’s been described as “crazy,” “intense” or “too much,” any girl who was burned for feeling out her own human experience.

Lorde’s songs on this album are equal parts vulnerable and empowering. She’s lamenting love gone away, but she’s not about to feel sorry for herself. At first listen, I jumped around on the tracks, and “Hard Feelings/Loveless” was one of the first song to really stop me in my tracks, with vivid descriptions of conversation and feeling. She nails internal emotional strife with visceral and meaningful metaphors, (“Cause I remember the rush, when forever was us/Before all of the winds of regret and mistrust”) over a mixture of beats and synthy tones that feels very now. “Writer in the Dark,” with its piano backbone, is a vigorous and powerful kiss-off that culminates with a falsetto-driven refrain, and a truly honest ode to the damage left by a broken relationship and the way one rebuilds.

“Liability” might be one of the best songs I’ve heard all year, a sad and strong tale of being cast aside. “You’re a little much for me/you’re a liability,” she sings from the voice of others. But something in her perception has such a confidence, as if he is more cognizant of the others’ own shortcomings instead of whatever of those are perceived in her. It’s the perfect anthem for anyone who has felt like their emotional well was brimming over their edges, so much so that others had to turn away as if the problem was in their feelings and not someone else’s inability to empathize. I can’t help but listen to this song and think of all the times I felt too much feeling, as if I couldn’t keep it inside my own skin….Lorde know this feeling inside and out, and she shares it freely with her listeners, an understanding delivered in sheer poetry.

The hype around this album was a rare instance where it was well-deserved. Every word that is written or spoken about this album ought to give credit where credit is due, for someone to open up a vein like this and pour it all out, leaving a beautiful mess for the rest of us to reflect on and bathe in. It’s inspiring, really, what she has done here and the way she carries herself, the way she moves other, the way she is so true to her identity a writer above all else.

“Baby really hurt me
Crying in the taxi
He don’t wanna know me
Says he made the big mistake of dancing in my storm
Says it was poison
So I guess I’ll go home
Into the arms of the girl that I love
The only love I haven’t screwed up
She’s so hard to please
But she’s a forest fire

I do my best to meet her demands
Play at romance, we slow dance
In the living room, but all that a stranger would see
Is one girl swaying alone
Stroking her cheek
They say, ‘You’re a little much for me
You’re a liability
You’re a little much for me’
So they pull back, make other plans
I understand, I’m a liability
Get you wild, make you leave
I’m a little much for
Everyone…”

~Liability
Lorde, Melodrama

5/21/17

Much has been written and said about the pop-tastic masterpiece that is the new Paramore album, After Laughter, and that’s instantly what I liked about it. There’s this clinging to the idea of them as a pop punk band or some notion that they “sold out” when really, their catalog extends beyond any slivered-up genre and just into one big category of modern American pop-rock. And is there anything wrong with that? Not to me. Paramore is a band I’ve always had a place in my heart for.

They’re just ubiquitous — if someone had to soundtrack a movie about a musically-inclined Millennial  in the 2000s or 2010s, you could do worse than plucking a few Paramore songs.

They’ve had so many strong points throughout their discography, even dating back to the albums from the last decade: The soaring throw-down chords of “For a Pessimist I’m Pretty Optimistic”  on Riot! are instantly satisfying — the nostaglia and homesickness of wandering youth on “Franklin” on All We Know Is Falling is identifiable and timeless. I still love these songs even though I’ve been playing them forever.

Then 2009’s brand new eyes broke through with a fresher sound (and coincided with a break-up) that veered more toward pop-rock and showed off Hayley Williams in a better light than ever. From her reaching screech on “Careful” to that stunning high note in “All I Wanted” (you know the one), she had a better command of her voice than on any proceeding records and really leaned into what she could do.

It’s also fun to listen to albums from 10 year ago like Riot! and realize I still know every word — let alone to think what my life was like then, how I identified with these songs, and how those crises and concerns have faded so much with time.

I spent lots of time with After Laughter when traveling through Colorado the weekend it came out, and since then choice tracks have made their way onto my workout/morning playlists. I really dig it, not only for its funky melodies and interesting sounds, but mostly for its attitude, this sort of in-your-face cynical optimism, this “I’m not playing this game or loving this life but I’m going to do me anyway” kind of vibe. “Fake Happy,” for instance, nails this sentiment on the head.

There’s one track in particular I binged on at any moment — “26,” the ballad, where Williams’ soprano and heartfelt emotion really shine through. Come to think of it, I’ve always really loved it when they slow things down and do the power ballad thing — but “26” is not about power, it is more about the quiet strength one finds with age and time. It’s about holding onto what you have and dreaming for something more, even at a time when the world and those around you are holding you down. And it exemplifies, as this band’s music always does, that Paramore is much more than a pop punk band, that Williams’ is much more than a petite chick rocker, and that those who live seemingly glamorous dream lives may be wishing and hoping for something else, something more, in an authentically unifying way.

You got me tied up but I stay close to the window
And I talk to myself about the places that I used to go
And hope that someday maybe I just float away
And I’ll forget every cynical thing you said
When you gonna hear me out
Man, you really bring me down

Hold onto hope if you got it
Don’t let it go for nobody
They say that dreaming is free
I wouldn’t care what it cost me

~26
Paramore, After Laughter

4/13/17

I didn’t hear of Wild Pink until this week, but their new self-titled debut is taking me by storm. It’s reflective from a generational perspective, using the details of one’s singular surroundings and relationships to opine on our greater struggles and cultural traumas. And they are a great fit at Tiny Engines, a label I have loved for their work with The Hotelier, Look Mexico and Restorations.

The lyrics in their songs are what grabbed me first, they write the the kind of songs that are jam-packed with words. The stories aren’t so much flushed out from start to finish, but snapshots of scenes interspersed with observations. There’s references to  “a vigil for a kid that died too young,” a repeated call to “put your phone down,” and the cryptic message to “I wonder if the next mass shooting will be here.” But none of these words and messages really feel melodramatic or like overkill; there things any millennial one who grew up with bomb threats at their high school could understand. There are references aplenty — one of my favorite tracks, “Great Apes,” manages to reference both the World Trade and Tim Robbins — and long, thoughtful phrases that dive into the depths of being introverted, anxious and relatively exhausted at the life one is living in the face of all the world has to show for itself.

Musically, they have a mellow emo/emo-revival thing going on, with guitar tones that remind me of American Football and Pinegrove and muted, mellow, harmonic-style vocals that could appear in a variety of indie rock bands. Wild Pink have a style that sounds like something I’ve heard before and yet their approach, their ability to purge emotional demons and ferret out the ugly parts of living in today’s world, are something new. It’s a fluid feel, and a garage-band vibe that come together to make their particular brand of indie . Though the record as a whole is pretty serious — I wouldn’t recommend it for moments when you want to hear something uplifting — it is full of movement, like sudden changes in time and lots of steady, sharp snare drum.

“Good times sneak and fleet
Your friends wanna spend some time with you tonight

Read about a poem that someone knows about your sign
They say when you were born the stars soared

Calm
Calm down
Put your phone down…”
~Wizard of Loneliness
Wild Pink, Wild Pink

3/2/17

One of the albums that’s really snuck up on me this year is Eisley’s I’m Only Dreaming, a record shepherded by Sherri DuPree Bemis. The band once featured three DuPree sisters, but Sherri’s stuck with it alongside other family members and new players, bringing their ambient-pop quality into a new era. I was never a huge fan though I never heard anything I disliked — and Currents had some really beautiful parts — but this one has stuck out to me for having some moments that just seem strikingly honest, raw and realized.

It’s dark, but just dark enough, it’s sweet, but just sweet enough, it’s confident and edgy. Sherri’s lyrics live in that space of just-vague-enough, bringing plenty of imagery and feeling without laying it on too thick. It’s a pleasant listen, if a rather monochromatic one, with every song striking this unique balance of strength, yearning and sensitivity. “Louder Than A Lion” has been my favorite, with “You Are Mine” and “Defeatist” as close seconds.

I’ve always had a huge soft spot for Sherri’ voice (one of the main reasons I dug the Perma record she did with husband Max Bemis). She has such a lovely soprano quality and can hit some insane notes in insane ways with a ton of power behind them, while somehow still sounding angelic. That brightness and lightness carries through the entire album, but I like how she lets herself get into more deeper and softer tones here and there, too. Listening to her, I just get lost in the sound and the way she enunciates what she’s saying, as if every phrase is a little missive from her truest soul (Bonus: listen to her on a recent episode of the Lead Singer Syndrome podcast for the story behind how Eisley came to be, and her utterly cool attitude about her sisters leaving the band and understanding how everyone’s path is different. Not to mention her life touring with small children. She’s totally inspiring!)

I’ve seen Eisley criticized by music writers for being too one-note, for not having enough of an edge to them, but I love the way Sherri’s voice carries the songs, the way the lyrics are sparse, and the way the guitars always seem to have just enough distortion to sound a little off-kilter. No matter how much it feels like it wants to rock harder, Eisley songs have always had such a beautiful, dreamlike quality to them — a reminder that’s OK to sit still, it’s OK to hang back, it’s OK to get lost in the moment, even if the world thinks you should do something greater.

“We fall backwards faster than the speed of sound
If you want to fly we’re able
If you want to flee I’m stable
I’ll stand and fight when you’re out…”
~Louder than a Lion
Eisley, I’m Only Dreaming

2/26/17

Life is busy, almost too busy sometimes, ratcheting up in responsibilities and squeezing out the spare time usually used to sit, reflect, read or just veg out. Fortunately, if you’re as much of a music fan as I am, the soundtrack to your goings-on can offer just enough of an emotional balm to keep you going until you catch your next breath (heck, sometimes it’s better than that and propels you even further).

Lately I’ve been into the newest Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness record, Zombies on Broadway, a buoyant and revealing pop-rock record that dropped a few weeks ago. I was a big Something Corporate I don’t think there was a mix CD in my possession without “Konstantine,” “I Kissed A Drunk Girl” or “I Woke Up In A Car” on it. The debut of Jack’s Mannequin thrilled me as much as anyone and I do think that record will hold up as a seminal classic for the early aughts.

But much of the post-JM solo work has come to me in fits and starts, I don’t think there was a release that I dove into from start to finish the way I have Zombies. The self-titled from 2014 has some great moments and I love love love “Cecelia and the Satellite” and “Maps for the Getaway” has become a theme song of sorts, but I came to it late, probably in 2015 or 2016.

Listening to Zombies, I hear a little bit of all that came before, from the stream-of-conscious spoken delivery in “Brooklyn You’re Killing Me” that feel very Leaving Through the Window, the dance beats of “Don’t Speak For Me (True)” from The Pop Underground era, the romantic anthem of “Love and Great Buildings” that has always been a strength of his. Thematically, Zombies wrestles with the hardships of balancing love, relationships, responsibilities and mental health, always with a hint of hope and optimism. McMahon appears to be able to offer a clinic on how to age and stay young at the same time.

It’s an incredibly tight and cohesive 11 tracks, full of McMahon’s sharp if mildly depressed observations. “Dead Man’s Dollar” darkly struggles with balancing responsibilities and personal strength,”Island Radio” is a stylistic take on a last ditch effort of sorts, and slow burn closer “Birthday Song” is call to one’s owns arms. So much of this album speaks to the strength and maturation one goes through in a life with myriad challenges, multiple mistakes and a massive emotional core. It’s one of the more honest, and catchy, records I’ve heard this year, and one I plan on revisiting time and time again.

“Pocket change and subway cars
Our big ideas filled empty bars
You might be from the moon or mars
Either way, I’m never going home

So, let’s hang an anchor from the sun
There’s a million city lights but
You’re number one
You’re the reason I’m still
Up at dawn
Just to see your face

We’ll be going strong
With the vampires, baby
We belong, we belong awake
Swinging from the fire escape”

~Fire Escape
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, Zombies on Broadway

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