Review: Pale Cicada by Makeunder

“I want to drift away from this brutal town/ let it sink into the ground with no story to tell/ a dying thunder in the darkness/ rattling in its mouth”

“I want to drift away from this brutal town/ let it sink into the ground with no story to tell/ a dying thunder in the darkness/ rattling in its mouth”

Hamilton Ulmer has felt like a stranger for almost as long as he can remember. The son of two “unorthodox” parents from rural northern California, Ulmer spent most of his childhood in San Antonio, Texas after his family relocated there for work when he was just two years old. Though he lived there for the majority of his formative years, he and his eccentric family struggled to find their place, leaving Ulmer with a nagging sense of alienation that followed him even after he moved back to California in his adulthood. When his father died of lung cancer in 2011, these complex emotions and unanswered questions compounded into something that needed an outlet. The result, for Ulmer, was the 2015 Makeunder EP Great Headless Blank which wrestled not only with the death of his father, but all of the things that went with him: memories, a cohesive narrative of Ulmer’s youth, and the homes their family had inhabited. Great Headless Blank was a series of grief vignettes; potent, melancholy songs that earned the critical praise of NPR’s Bob Boilen among others. Immediate and powerful, those songs were an exercise in grieving and left many questions to be answered later.

Four years after the fact, Ulmer and Makeunder have returned with a true master work, their first proper LP, the three act concept piece Pale Cicada. Thematically, Pale Cicada picks up where Great Headless Blank left off, piecing together what life is for a poor man who has always felt out of step even as he deals with the residual grief of his father’s passing. “I know that I can’t help myself/ how do I live with this sadness?/ Give me something real/ before I sink into the ground/ with no story to tell” goes the hook of the opener and title track Pale Cicada, the closest thing to a mission statement on the album. As he writes he delves succinctly and capably into just about every angle he can find of his situation, dealing with poverty on the psych-funk In Between My Dead End Jobs, taking an esoteric side glance at marriage on Ringing Chord, reclaiming childhood on Ain’t That a Trip, and exploring his father’s death with added perspective on Begin in the Middle. For most of the album Ulmer’s lyrics are sharp and frank in their heaviness, but if you were listening casually you would never know. Each line is delivered in Ulmer’s smooth Soul/RnB voice, through acrobatic runs, complex harmony chords, and often staggered staccato melodies.

Sonically, Pale Cicada also diverts some attention from the weight of the words: it is largely up-tempo from track one and at points even danceable. The second track and first single In Between My Dead End Jobs might even be considered poppy, leaving aside a sudden dark turn into Tom Waits territory for a portion of the bridge. Describing the complex, often dense arrangements as a whole however, feels impossible. One could call it RnB or Funk, but neither term does any justice to the highly creative, genre-bending sounds that Makeunder accomplish on this record. Opening track Pale Cicada veers into art-rock territory with heavy distorted guitars and blaring trumpet sounds before swinging into a soulful, almost anthemic chorus. Begin in the Middle sounds like Prince succumbing to the dark side with its haunting harmonies, vocal slap-back, and heavy drum groove. Ringing Chord seems to reference Justin Vernon with subtle vocoder layering on the lead vocal and an ambient arrangement, while I’m Still Living Wrongly goes from RnB, to folk, to a swelling string crescendo, to a sinister noise rock break, before landing a triumphant guitar solo and going back to folk. Pulling off genre fusion at this level is extremely difficult, but Makeunder make it look easy each and every song, creating one of the most instrumentally interesting albums of the year to date with little real competition in sight.

Inevitably though, not every experiment on such an experiment heavy album can land. Though second single Promothean Heat succeeds in its off-kilter verses and it’s unexpected, Kendrick Lamar-esque harmony walls, it’s ascending refrain feels done just to prove it can be done. It’s nonetheless still incredibly impressive, but doesn’t seem to line up with the line that sits on it, one of the less chaotic lines on the album. In that regard the album’s biggest strength is in one way also its biggest weakness, it’s experimentation at once makes it one of, if not THE most interesting album of the year, but for more casual listeners the sheer amount of things happening at any given time could be easily overwhelming, even despite the clear pop sensibility Ulmer shows throughout with his melodies. 

If you are willing to dive into Pale Cicada though, it is an incredibly rewarding listen; a truly master class album both lyrically and instrumentally. It is definitely dense, however. Even after several repeat listens you will still be picking out things you hadn’t heard before in the mix: overlapping guitar lines, backing vocals, metaphors, and lyrical tie-ins between tracks. For Ulmer it is the culmination of a life of personal struggle, and here he makes his statement emphatically and in the grandest possible fashion. His work of self-processing is complete, but for us listeners the processing has only just begun: it could take a lifetime to milk from this all that it has to offer.

8.5 (Best New Music)

Released: June 28, 2019
Label: Good Eye Records

Sampler: New Of Monsters and Men Leads the Way

New music from Of Monsters & Men kicks off this week’s indie and alternative packed single sampler.

New music from Of Monsters and Men kicks off this week’s indie and alternative packed single sampler.

Alligator by Of Monsters and Men

It’s hard to believe that Of Monsters and Men has already been around for a decade. The Icelandic indie folk/rock/pop act has been making steady waves since 2011, when their first single Little Talks got picked up by then prominent Philadelphia Radio 104.5, a lucky break that propelled the band to international name recognition. Both Little Talks and the album it came from, My Head is an Animal, went number one in Iceland and the latter debuted at number 6 in the U.S. The album has since been certified platinum. Since that fateful debut, they’ve shown no real signs of slowing down. Their sophomore effort Beneath the Skin debuted at number three and earned them their first Grammy nomination, as well as TV appearances, a spot at Coachella, and the honor of being the first Icelandic artist to cross 1 billion streams on Spotify. Now four years later, Of Monsters and Men are back for round three with Fever Dream and its dynamic first single Alligator. Alligator has everything we’ve come to expect from the band: a lush enveloping soundscape, an immediately catchy stadium chorus and a bonus equally catchy bridge all wrapped together with the crisp indie-pop production that has been a staple of their sound since the onset. But this single also veers into some new territory for the band, namely a rhythmic, electric guitar driven “breakdown” in each post-chorus. It’s a choice almost reminiscent of Scottish arena rock icons Biffy Clyro and certainly the most “rock” thing Of Monsters and Men has gone for during their recent slide into more alternative sounds. It will be interesting to see if this new theme carries through the rest of Fever Dream when it officially releases July 26.

Find Me Out by Ronjo V

Austin’s Ronjo V are putting their own spin on a long tradition of meat n’ potatoes alternative in the line of Beck and early Wilco. Their newest single, Find Me Out, is a clinic on dynamic movement and layering; shifting between acoustic led rhythms, creamy leads, punchy electric chords, and tactful blues riffs that are both impressive and purposely understated. In fact “understated” is probably the best descriptor for Ronjo V’s whole operation. Nothing draws undue attention to itself, which often masks the fact that there’s actually a decent bit going on at all times, whether it be overlapping guitar leads in the latter parts of the verses or a subtle tambourine in the chorus. This creates a sensation of movement that is felt without always being heard and it also opens up exactly the amount of space needed to let the listener focus on what lead songwriter Ryan Joseph wants them to hear. And once he has your undivided attention Joseph doesn’t disappoint. A falsetto harmony marks a succinct, ear catching pre-chorus, before hitting an absolutely killer chorus that would have been guaranteed radio fodder ten years ago when alternative radio still played alt-rock. This is broken up by not one, but two guitar instrumentals, the first a plodding riff with vaguely Spanish undertones in the bridge, and the second a bluesy accent solo in the outro that calls to mind The Eagles. All in all, Find Me Out is a must hear for alternative fans as well as indie-rock aficionados looking for a little more rock in their indie; a stand out new single from a promising young project.

Anthem For the Weak by The Harmaleighs

Haley Grant is battling depression her own way. She is the lead songwriter for the emotive Nashville folk duo The Harmaleighs, alongside her compatriot and bassist Kaylee Jasperson, and like many other artists who struggle with depression, she is using her creativity as both a platform of expression and a weapon in the chemical war inside her head. Though many other artists have used creation as an outlet for processing their mental health, the way Grant goes about it is uniquely her own. The Harmaleighs’ new album She Won’t Make Sense, due out on August 2nd, is a conversation between Grant and her personified depression, which she names Susan. As the album goes on, Grant and Susan engage in a struggle for control, culminating in the final song I Don’t Know Myself which begs the question: “do the darkest parts of ourselves make us who we are?” On the opposite end of the album sits the most recent single, opener Anthem For the Weak, a dusty, melancholy folk song with cutting lyricism reminiscent of rising indie star Phoebe Bridgers. The song is a sonic departure for the duo, delving further into full-band soundscapes than their prior brand of sparse pop folk, and it pays off dramatically. The airy synth sounds, subtle organ, delay-heavy drums, and selectively used slide guitar create an atmosphere that captures the emotional unease and distance of depression to a tee, without delving too far into the soul-crushing existentialism typical of the subject matter. Instead Grant’s lyrics dance through light, catchy pop melodies that stick on the first listen, and they do so without compromising any of the desired impact. For these reasons The Harmaleighs’ impending album is one of our most anticipated releases of August.

I Don’t Wanna Take Too Much by The Brazen Youth

I’ve often heard it said, especially of music, that there is nothing new under the sun. The Brazen Youth are simultaneously the biggest proof and the biggest challenge to this notion. Formed in a 300-year-old farmhouse in rural Connecticut by middle school friends Nicholas Lussier and Charlie Dahlke, The Brazen Youth’s earthy, folksy, roots rock is filled with familiar tones, feels, and motifs. There’s the old raggedy piano, the sharp honk of the blues guitar, the shriek of the organ, and the storytelling lyricism, one part personal narrative and one part esoteric wanderings like many of the great songwriters that came before them. But somehow the music that they create is wholly their own, defying any apt comparison and masking any direct influences the songwriting duo may have had. The result is something incredibly rare: a sound that pulls you in with familiarity, but keeps you interested with unpredictable mystique. It’s as if The Brazen Youth have tapped into something beyond themselves, a living history much like their beloved farmhouse, something timeless and packed with nondescript emotional power. This distinct feeling is only hammered home by mystical lyrics like “I’d like to harness the most divine state” and “one collective human body/ 15 billion eyes just belonging to somebody.” It’s the kind of song that puts you in its own state of being, and when it’s over you can’t help but want to experience more. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until September 19 to hear the rest of their new EP 15 Billion Eyes, but in the meantime you can continue to cultivate your longing by playing I Don’t Wanna Take Too Much on repeat.

Just You by Steven Bowers feat. Meaghan Smith

Steven Bowers’ brand of folk music combines the storytelling tradition of writers like Jason Isbell, Ryan Adams, and John K. Samson with a larger than life, cinematic kind of spirit. His latest, Just You, takes on a almost post-apocalyptic type of character, not the violent and future-western apocalypse of Mad Max, but a reflective and emotionally present take on what is lost and the almost spiritual journey to reclaim it. “I wanted you when we were strangers/ then one you were coming over/ suddenly twenty, thirty years are going by.” But as time dissolves and takes with it its victims, Bowers pushes back in a triumphant flourish: “so build a fire from whatever kindling you can find/ when all the world is ending/ and it’s beginning all the time/ no goodbyes, no goodbyes/ polar bear looking for the ice/ Frankenstein waiting for the lightning/ one day your heart will reanimate/ just you wait.” Supporting his vivid images are swelling guitar, lush piano, stadium toms, and layers of harmonies whisping ethereally in the background. The result is a song bursting at the seems with emotion, dramatized enough to draw out a powerful reaction but realistic enough to still be real-world relatable, equally perfect for the climactic ending to an indie film or for listening while staring at the rain out your bedroom window.

Sampler: Skate. Better.

This sampler is for anyone who grew up playing Tony Hawk Pro-Skater games and promptly popped an ankle on their first drop into the half-pipe in real life. Enjoy four EPs that will take you back to that fateful moment in one listen:

EP by Why Not

Hailing from the twin cities of Minnesota, Why Not combine the mathy twinkle of Midwest emo with Philly style indie punk and a smattering of prog. EP is a whirlwind of groove shifts, gang shouted hooks, noodly guitar lines, and massive expansions into reverby space. Perhaps the best example of this comes in the penultimate track Thud. Dead., which substitutes a traditional chorus for a hard-hitting octave riff before turning on a dime into an off-kilter clean section layered with pitch shifting guitars. This then promptly changes time signatures before literally exploding into a heavy, groovy Chon riff that transitions seamlessly back into the faux-chorus. For an album so focussed on musicianship, EP is surprisingly fun and lighthearted. Of the four tracks, the only one that veers into really melancholic territory is the closing 10 minute odyssey Eighth Year, an impressive prog song complete with 5/4 time, noise and glitch sections, a minute long guitar solo, and a heavy-hitting slow-burn chorus where vocalist Henry Breen sings his most iconic line: “Now I’m standing tall/ I’m a tree/ Now I’m standing here/ Just to be me.” It’s altogether one of the most impressive emo/ indie punk EPs to come out in 2019, and a great surrogate for anyone looking to fill the void left in the wake of JANK’s demise.

Divide and Conga by King Punch

Ska-Punk is one of the most quintessential offshoots of 90s and 2000s punk music, but in 2019 it is unfortunately in short supply. Thankfully, London’s King Punch has come to the rescue with their newest EP, cheekily titled Divide and Conga. Divide and Conga is 14 minutes of infectious, skank-inducing, existential ska-punk reminiscent of 3rd wave legends Streetlight Manifesto, albeit a little more streamlined. Lyrically this fast paced EP comes out swinging. Opening track Sit Still ends with a double bridge with the ringers: “there always seems to be someone speaking for me” and “it was an itch to scratch/ then a bone to pick/ now a hill to die on/ boy that happened quick.” Second track Whole Lotta Love keeps up the punches with the kicker: “it’s hard to find time when you’re never free.” To round out the middle-aged angst, King Punch throw a curve ball for the fourth track on the album and cover the System of a Down hit Chop Suey!, turning a once visceral alt-metal track on its head with blaring horns and a halftime reggae chorus. Like most ska covers before it, it really shouldn’t work, but they manage to defy all odds and turn it into a humorous and thoroughly enjoyable closer to a very solid offering.

Gumiho by Gumiho

Seoul, South Korea’s Gumiho are bringing back classic, 90s hardcore punk. Their new self-titled EP is a flurry of aggression and angst delivered with the same fast and loose charm that once drew tons of disaffected youth to packed basement shows decades ago. Opening the album is the immediately catchy Destroyed Warranty, a NoFx style onslaught with a snare-kick K-punk chorus. This spills into the darkest and angriest track, Glittering Dreams with the haunting chorus: “it doesn’t have arms but knows how to use them/ it doesn’t have a face but knows where to find one.” Here Gumiho take a quick break from the blistering punk brand they’ve established and delve into more melodic territory with the serpentine -ing and the bouncy pop punk of Help Request. The reprieve is short-lived however, and soon they return to their prior form on the skate punk Twisted Mind, which transforms part way into a downtempo groove before handing the reigns to the last and perhaps the best track on the EP. We Create the Stars is old-school hardcore at its finest with plodding verses led by bass and toms and an explosive gang-shout chorus: “I’ll swing six feet/ You’ll swing in eight/ Watch the water flicker/ As our bodies hit the lake.” Throughout their eponymous record Gumiho prove that angsty music doesn’t have to brooding or gut-wrenching, in fact, in this case it can be a lot of good old fashioned fun.

Down the Path by For the Legion

What would a skate sampler be without EZ-core? For the Legion has been carving out a name for themselves in the European pop punk scene for the better part of a decade and their latest EP Down the Path shows the Swedish quartet at their melodic finest. It’s also their most mature record to date, taking a page from their peers Set Your Goals’ book on We Want You to Panic, a sing along anthem about the impending climate catastrophe complete with samples of panicked news anchors, and also touching on such adult themes as parenting and racial prejudice. It’s an album full of welcome growth in a genre with a major Peter Pan complex and a far cry from their earlier, more lighthearted and comic book inspired music. With experience comes perspective, and as long-time veterans For the Legion take this release as an opportunity to stand for what they believe in. Don’t worry that they’ve lost their edge though, because Down the Path is loaded with bangers, from the anthemic opener May, to the gutsy Thrown, the shreddy Always Out of Time, Never Out of Breath, and the subdued closing ballad Thin Air. They might be, as the name suggests, a bit more down the path, but For the Legion prove emphatically here that they still have a lot to give and they aren’t going anywhere just yet.

Sampler: Earthy Tones in Folk, Blues, and Jazz

Four earthy tracks from multiple genres that are perfect for your Sunday afternoon.

This week we’re breaking from our genre oriented samplers to give you something new: four earthy tracks from multiple genres that are perfect for your Sunday afternoon.

Nothing Turns My Lock by Kate Vargas

Kate Vargas’ brand of earthy, muted jazz is beautifully classic, but her perspective is anything but old-fashioned. Nothing Turns My Lock is a manifesto on sexual liberation, pulling out every stop and holding back zero punches. As each verse unfolds, Vargas confidently pushes the envelope farther with lines like, “I like good loving, that don’t make me bad”, “I’m not a big believer in monogamy”, and the god of all stanzas: “I don’t discriminate between Johnny and Sue/ He, she, they, and you can come (wink, wink) too/ Yes it may take many, many, many men and women to satisfy my needs/ But nothing turns my lock like your key.” It’s an expansion on the jazz standard form, which to use Vargas’ words is “usually pretty hetero and monogamous”, but it never loses the timeless feel of it’s source material. Her energy is defiantly infectious. As soon as her smoky jazz voice hits your ears in all its raspy, irreverent glory you can’t help but get hooked. Nothing Turns My Lock is a must-listen even if you aren’t usually a jazz fan, it’s a witty pop statement from a supremely talented rising star. We can’t wait to see where Kate Vargas goes from here.

Eyes to the Sky by David Ellis

Folk as a genre has exploded in the past decade, but even in such a crowded and diverse genre David Ellis has found a niche that makes him stand out from the crowd. Where the scene is largely dominated by pop folk acts cashing in on the Mumford & Sons/The Lumineers explosion at the start of the decade, one guitar male/female duos with tight harmonies, and emotive Justin Vernon-inspired experimental projects, Ellis has turned instead to the 70s to capture and modernize an up-beat, rhythmic kind of hippie folk that is both catchy and creative. A self-described “Pagan Rock” artist from London, his aim is to make earthy and spiritual music for an increasingly spiritually deprived Western culture, encouraging the listener to connect with the beauty of the world and find happiness within themselves. On his latest single, Eyes to the Sky, he does exactly that, creating an optimistic and nuanced song about love in the grander sense that is imbued with an undeniable vitality. The album it was taken from, Misty Heights, recorded and produced by Ellis while living next to the Byrdcliffe Colony in Woodstock, is slated for release August 15.

Caught Between Our Troubles by The American Buffalo

The 1970s were the heyday of rock music, marked by watershed releases from bands as varied as Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, The Eagles, The Ramones, and Rush. One particular subculture of 70s rock, however, largely faded into obscurity in the following decades except for two of its figureheads, Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Southern Rock was a thriving sub-community in the rock landscape of the 1970s, focussed on virtuosic, earthy guitar playing and storytelling lyricism more often than not about the everyday experience of the common man. On Caught Between Our Troubles, Dayton-by-way-of-Nashville artist The American Buffalo channel the 70s Southern Rock movement in sound and in spirit, resulting in a powerful mix of folk, country, and blues that paints a simple, but resonant scene: two brothers sitting in a park, deep in reflection over a pack of smokes. It’s part of singer-songwriter Josh Edwards’ modus operandi: dissecting the oft-ambiguous role of the white American male in a culture of white patriarchy. He does this with probing, storytelling songwriting in the tradition of American Popular Music (not to be confused with American Pop Music), a very historically aware movement including a wide variety of genres that is meant to be in direct conversation with the cultural meta-narrative. As a result, Caught Between Our Troubles feels timeless, a thoughtful track that is relevant today and would have been relevant even in the era it emulates.

FOMO by Great Aunt

Americana usually calls to mind the bayous of Louisiana, the pocket communities of the Appalachian mountains, or the great plains of the American heartland, but Melbourne, Australia’s Great Aunt prove that, despite its name, not all great Americana comes from the United States. Comprised of songwriters Megan Byrd and Chelsea Allen, Great Aunt have been steadily making a name for themselves in the Australian Country Music community since 2016 with their tight harmonies and instrumentals that are elegant in their simplicity. Lyrically they pull influence from old time, bluegrass, and gospel traditions, writing downtrodden music that masks its latent sorrowfulness in the joy of its expression. On their newest single, FOMO, Great Aunt drop back off their usually vocal-driven sound and instead highlight their guitar playing prowess, arranging the song around a set of slide guitar riffs that sound straight off a Georgia front porch. The sparse lyrics accent these riffs beautifully, creating an almost haunting vibe with their hushed, close harmonies. The sound feels like a captured live performance, creating a sensation of immediacy that draws the listener in to the deep valleys and dangerous peaks of the song as it undulates between dynamic extremes. 

Sampler: 4 Must-Hear Underground Hip-Hop Tracks

Lofi beats and strong lyrical delivery.

This week we’re keeping with our theme of low-key music, but breaking our tradition of guitar-based samplers to highlight another of our favorite genres: underground hip-hop. For this particular sampler we want to highlight lo-fi beats and strong lyrical delivery, so without further ado, here are four underground hip-hop tracks you must hear.

Blow Up by Richard Carter

Blow Up is perseverant and confident beneath its somber exterior. A newcomer from Croydon in the UK music scene, Richard Carter raps about tapping into the immortality in music, finding success with patience, determination, and love for his craft: “Once I fly away, I’ve got no doubt about it/ I know I’ll find a way, I’ve got no doubts about it, I’ll blow up.” In the first two verses Carter slips into sparse and deliberate storytelling bars, matching the jazz-inspired vibe of the beat and pulling the listener into his everyday life. Such a choice might seem mundane, but Carter has an almost transcendent sense of his own narrative, a conviction that what he’s doing is “more important than life” and that the characters surrounding him are on similar arcs. It’s this quality that truly sets Carter apart from his peers, he re-purposes the triumphant spirit of American radio hip-hop and finds a way to contextualize it in the harsh realism of conscious hip-hop. The result is not really either, but a rewarding new middle ground that is lyrical enough to win critics while still being catchy and relatable to the average listener.

Don’t Box Me In by KHAJE ft. Font Leroy & Sekani

The latest from Jamaican-American, New York producer KHAJE is a jazz-hip-hop banger calling to mind Saba and Kendrick Lamar. As the compound piano chords fade in to the opening hook “don’t box me in”, one would imagine that this song would be a laid-back storytelling piece, but as soon as the rapping starts its immediately clear that this song is going in a very different direction. Font Leroy makes his presence known, immediately diving into tight, quick bars filled with confident internal rhyme and staggered triplets. It’s a great first impression from the New York rapper, who proves with one minute long verse that he deserves more attention than a lot of the rising stars in the genre. After another repetition of the hook, Sekani provides the perfect counterpoint to Font Leroy’s approach with his booming voice and deliberate, aggressive delivery. Both rappers cut their teeth here on the roughly two minute track and show that New York is still a thriving hip-hop underground.

MY LIFE by Emma Lee

Emma Lee might not be a household name yet, but she’s an accomplished veteran on the rise in the independent arts community. She’s been involved in everything from film, to media, to writing, to performing with the Oscar and Grammy nominated Impact Repertory Theatre. Her brand of conscious, boom-bap, hip-hop is hyper-lyrical; filled with cutting, insightful lines on what it means to be a black woman in hip-hop and America at large that refuses to be defined by other’s expectations. MY LIFE is a clinic on using self-expression to address societal problems where Emma Lee walks boldly onto “roads that ain’t paved for me”, breaking barriers one lyrical incision at a time. Already, without a major release to here name, her command of her own narrative, unique perspective, and lyrical prowess call to mind established artists such as Noname, Dawn Richard, and Kendrick Lamar. When her forthcoming debut album finally drops she has the very real potential to climb into that same echelon in the public eye, because as far as talent is concerned she already deserves to be there.

World Series by Mic Miles

Mic Miles is trying to bring bars back to Hip-Hop. The Cleveland native practically oozes with confidence as he delivers lines like: “life is a gamble, just hope your parents nice/ got me searching for paradise with a pair of dice”, “this game is a bitch I ain’t prepared to wife”, and “my moment’s everlasting/ my clock is broken.” His delivery and the beat that backs it up both call to mind early Kanye West, bringing us back to a time when he owned the radio with cheeky lines and character, long before he became the poster-boy for experimental production. Mic Miles continues his revival of the best parts of late 2000s hip-hop throughout his debut EP, 27, leaving behind the abrasive tendencies of 2006 club beats and the dance-floor cliches, but reveling in the tongue-in-cheek one-liners that typified the era. It’s this almost playful nature that makes World Series stand out from the contemporary hip-hop landscape in 2019, where sad-boi emo rap, banal cloud rap, and politically charged conscious hip-hop dominate the airwaves. Mic Miles set out to bring bars back to hip-hop, but in doing so he brought back something that’s been missing for almost a decade: fun.

Review: This is Not the End by Spielbergs

FFO Japandroids, Jeff Rosenstock, Titus Andronicus

One of the most curious bands in the 2019 indie punk landscape comes, somewhat surprisingly, from Oslo, Norway. No one is really clear how the three-piece anthem-rock outfit Spielbergs became an indie darling overnight, including the band themselves. All three members had been earnest and active members of the indie rock and punk community in Norway roughly a decade ago, but after years of failing to break through they had all more or less moved on with their lives and settled in to steady 9 to 5 jobs. It was frustration with this regular life and the mundane cycles it slips into that caused vocalist/guitarist Mads Baklien and drummer Christian Lovhaug, now in their 30s, to get together and start jamming as “an adult youth group, thing.” They had no real expectations at this stage, they just wanted to make music that was fun to play. Shortly afterward their first single, Daisy! It’s the New Me, hit number 27 on a yearly Best Song’s list on one of Norway’s national magazines. The EP it came from, Distant Star, brought in rave reviews from both Stereogum and Pitchfork in 2018. 

A year later, Spielbergs are capitalizing on that sudden, unexpected momentum with their debut LP This is Not the End, and it’s already a forerunner for best punk/alternative record of 2019. Beginning with the opening power pop standard Five on It, Spielbergs craft a warm, fuzzy rock record packed with immediate lyrics, catchy hooks, and enough anthemic woah sections to draw in even the most casual listeners. It’s also a surprisingly diverse record. On Familiar and the nearly 8 minute odyssey McDonald’s (Please Don’t Fuck Up My Order) they dip into moody and cathartic post-rock. Sleeper tone’s down the fuzz for a moment to produce a quiet folk song, led by a solo acoustic and backed up by ambient tremolo soundscapes. Sandwiched between these is You All Look Like Giants, which sounds sort of like Dinosaur Jr. covering an Achtung Baby era U2 song. With a spread this wide it would be easy for an album to feeling jarring or disjointed, but Spielbergs place each foray into new territory perfectly in its proper context to create an impressively coherent piece start to finish.

Lyrically This is Not the End is a restless daydream, the musings of men longing for everyday fulfillment with none of the revolutionary aggression that is steadily becoming mainstream in punk music again. Baklien humorously quips that his lyrics essentially amount to “whining”, but that doesn’t stop them from being incredibly relatable. What’s more impressive is that their lyrics hit home so acutely, despite the band admitting that they aren’t very confident in their English and were worried the songs wouldn’t come out well. Even without taking into account the language barrier, lines like “we could be perfect!” in Distant Star, “what do you want/what do you hope for?” in We Are All Going to Die, or “I don’t want to be a part of your future” from Bad Friend make perfect hooks. The directness in these short lines make them easily to shout along with after one listen and the conviction with which Spielbergs deliver them make them cathartic as all hell.

The only major weakness of the record is the mix. While it’s not really much worse off than most punk records, the guitars have a tendency to dominate these recordings. Most of the time this is exactly the intention, but throughout the record the lyrics dip in and out of intelligibility under the sheer force of the fuzz. Even in the choruses, the biggest strength of the record as a whole, whole lines dissolve into just melodies, leaving you with the distinct impression of “that was catchy” without giving you the opportunity to really sing along. In the grand scheme of things this isn’t the worst issue to have however, as a lot of bands, including sludge metal darlings Baroness, manage to get by with much worse and even thrive in the critical arena. It certainly hasn’t held Spielbergs back either, their reception from both fans and critics has been nothing but positive. At long last these three punk scene vets have finally been given their due, and on this their dynamic debut and opus, they’ve earned it fair and square.

Score: 8.3 (Best New Music)

Released: February 1, 2019
Label: By the Time it Gets Dark

Sampler: 4 Downtempo Indie Singles for Your Rainy Weekend

It’s a Friday night in Pittsburgh and I’m sitting at our dining room table as the thunder booms outside. I should be used to the rain by now, we in Pittsburgh get less sunny days each year than even Seattle, but even after living here for almost 25 years I still slip into a general malaise every time it storms. If you too are stuck inside on this rainy weekend and feeling a bit gloomy, this week’s sampler series could be the perfect soundtrack to your day. Here are four new, downtempo indie singles that we thought deserved to be heard:

Not My Body by Sam Lynch

“This is not my body, no, they made a mistake” singer/songwriter Sam Lynch croons softly over subdued synth pads. Her delivery is at once stunning and haunting, occupying that perfect space between the hollowness of disembodiment and the rawness of yearning for something more. That yearning through uncertainty informs the central theme of Not My Body, the loss of one’s self and the probing question: “is it all a mistake?” As the track works its way into a powerful crescendo led by piano, distant harmonies and strings, her voice grows more convicted and she hits one final, emotive and relatable line: “maybe all that’s left are fragments of myself/ never feels like enough to be set so I drown it out instead.” If you have ever experienced the distinct sensation of looking yourself in the mirror and wondering what really makes you, well, you, then this song should resonate strongly.

In Between by Junaco

California indie rock bands are usually known for beachy sounds, but Junaco break the stereotype in grand fashion to create an immersive and emotive soundscape reminiscent of Wilco’s The Whole Love. Overtop the dreamy atmospheric guitars and laid back groove, vocalist Shahana Jaffer sings calmly and effortlessly as she weaves a story about letting go, leaving because you know you have to, but not knowing how leaving will change who you are. However, where most songwriters would convey this through a sense of restlessness, she delivers her story with what seems a lot more like acceptance. Her voice melds into the surrounding instrumental, creating a general feeling of interconnectedness in the track that mirrors the complex interconnected emotions of Jaffer’s lyrics. In Between is sad without being hopeless, happy without being exuberant, and resolute without being harsh, the kind of song that gains power with each repeat listen.

Between Worlds by I Am Oak

Continuing with the theme of transitions, Utrecht, The Netherlands’ ambient folk project I Am Oak ask a unique question on their newest single Between Worlds: “What do I do in the mean time when it’s mean time all of the time?” It’s a question with existential weight, but songwriter Thijs Kuijken asks it almost as if it were a passing idea, as if he were sitting on his porch deep in thought and just taking in the world around him. Nowhere to go. Nothing really to do. But Kuijken doesn’t seem upset, instead he takes a step back and watches, allowing everything to unfold. The instrumental captures this mood perfectly. Though I Am Oak is known for being a folk band, here they take on a sonic palette more akin to a downtempo Snow Patrol, building on a subdued beat and a hushed acoustic guitar, but flourishing in each chorus with distorted guitar and melodic piano. All of this comes together to create a lush, dynamic song that stops the listener in their tracks. 

Everyday by Joel Ansett

To end off our list is a track that’s a little bit more uplifting, but don’t worry, it’s still very downtempo and won’t break the mood. Joel Ansett is a Denver, CO songwriter whose music combines ambient, folk textures and writing with subtle nods to RnB. On his newest, Everyday, Ansett sings of love in hushed tones: “wisdom when I lose my way/ you’re the magic in all of this mundane.” It’s a beautiful line and also a perfect description of Ansett’s art as a whole. With very little melody from the instrumental and tons of open space he is able to create a song that feels more than a little magical; a track that is engaging and emotive even in its minimalism. To top it off it also has an immediately catchy hook: “I know more than ever now, I need you, oh I need you… I need you everyday.” It is a wonderfully peaceful song and the perfect way to finish off this rainy day sampler.