Review: Humble Universe by November Lounge

For fans of: jam bands, modern jazz, beach rock

Last year was evidently full of great albums that were easy to miss. From the opening drum grooves and crystalline guitar passages of “Out of Touch”, you’ll regret not finding November Lounge sooner. The band’s core sound is a summery blend of indie rock and jazz that manifests in songs that feel huge and cinematic. Arguably, this PA-based trio does prog better than many self-described prog bands.

There are nuances on Humble Universe which point toward a myriad of influence: the jam-band-esque “Tired”, the dreamy balled “Roots”, the ethereal “West Coast”, and the mathy “Wise Man” manage to show the spectrum of the band’s intelligent songwriting.

Humble Universe seems aptly-titled. It feels down-to-earth. It reminds me of local bands in my area or even smaller bands around the country. For whatever reason, it’s not a sound that seems to exist in the mainstream even though there is a heavy degree of mass appeal at play. “Humble” feels entirely appropriate, then. November Lounge is not boasting incessantly or standing on a pedestal and they don’t need to. Their music speaks for itself and it does so genuinely.

The lyrics follow in suit, opting for a more “say what you mean” approach rather than an egregious amount of obscure wordplay. It’s a relational album, though it’s far from myopic. We see love at its best and worst – the full roller coaster of emotions and the questions that come along for the ride. Humble Universe is not going to win a Pulitzer Prize for its lyrics but it manages to avoid pop cliches and still have something tangible to say.

The best part of the album, though, is the overall mood. Aaron Abercrombie’s voice is perfect for this sort of music, with its buttery timbre. The drumming is incredibly technical and energetic. Guitars weave between melodic bliss and funky chord-based segments. Bass is groovy and packs a decent punch. This results in an album that is relaxed but has a sense of urgency all the same. It’s not quite coffee shop material because of some of the powerful rhythm sections, but it wouldn’t be at home in a club because of the more restrained vocals and guitar parts. This is an unfortunate placement in some respects, but it cements the album’s position of being written for humans and not commercialism.

Hopefully Humble Universe has proven an effective gateway to the Philadelphia music scene for November Lounge. It’s an album that leaves an immediate impression. It’s a cozy collection of songs perfect for this time of year that satisfies both pop sensibilities and technical songwriting.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)

Review: Death Magnanimous by Troll 2

For fans of: AJJ, Pat the Bunny, The Dead South Murder by Death, Dixie Chicks

If you’re been around the block for a while, you’ll recognize Troll 2 as that immediately divisive movie released in 1990 with little connection to its predecessor that sits at a 6% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film has garnered colorful reviews like the following:

“Troll 2” is as treacherous and repulsive a film as I’ve ever seen. Judging by the actors’ crude performances and the incredible lack of technical skill, it doesn’t seem like anyone involved in the production knew what they were doing or what was going on. The first explanation that comes to mind is that all of the badness is intentional, but even I don’t think that a purposely awful film would come close to the ineptitude shown on display here. It’s ugly, poorly-strung together, not scary in the least bit and altogether a real horrible thing. The only half-redeeming quality about it is that its own awfulness may cause you to laugh, but don’t count on it.

Thankfully, this is not a review of the film – but instead, of a band who has chosen the film as its namesake. Boston-based Troll 2 is socially-conscious folk-punk group formed in the 2010s from a host of other bands. The band carries a similar wit to The Dead South (if the name weren’t proof), tackling issues like the wage gap and police abuse with energetic, direct songs. There’s even a touch of macabre mixed in as well, in true AJJ fashion.

Death Magnanimous, the band’s 2018 LP, certainly holds nothing back in any of these respects. After the instrumental interlude “Theme From Troll 2”, the band dives into the murder ballad, “Means and Motive”. Stylistically, it has a bit of Carrie Underwood-esque vocals mixed into the aggression of the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl”. Here’s a check look at some of the lyrics:

She came to me, calling after midnight
Sobbing in the bathtub with still her sweater done
As I watched the water run from salmon into scarlet
I knew right then and there we would not stop ’til this war’s won

We packed the car and we headed down to Danvers
I at the wheel, her small frame shotgun side
I’ll erase evidence like you erase accusations
Why is justice for others so often self denied?

The song addresses domestic abuse and manipulation of power with bold lyrics and enchanting instrumentals. Strings aplenty adorn the album, but it never feels needlessly southern. The musical compositions are worthy to accompany their lyrical counterparts, showcasing the same levels of wistfulness and aggression.

“I’ve Got a Stick” is a playful anti-violence song whose highlight line is “Kiss your mom / I’ve got the bomb”. There’s a silver lining on the ending verse (which is an alternate take on the first), which focuses on the power of cooperation.

Other tracks, specifically “Roadkill” and “You Should Think About Death More” focus more on mortality, ephemera, and perhaps even depression. However, these are not cheap sentiments; rather, they’re meant to be viewed in light of the other themes on the album. The underlying commentary is a call to action rather than a simple regurgitation of how depressing modern life is. “There’s no end until you face it”, the album concludes. It’s easy to read that as acceptance of mortality but it’s also an implication that the problems that permeate society will persist if we simply ignore them.

“Theme from Troll 2 – Reprise” perhaps sheds a bit more light on the album and band as a whole. It’s a counterpart to the opener, but it contains lines from the Troll 2 film. Specifically, the lines concern the infection which is a main plot point of the movie. As characters contract the illness, they are in stasis, simply waiting to be devoured. It’s not hard to see a confused, burdened, and largely-passive public in the same way. The infection is already here, and we’re called to be on guard.

Death Magnanimous is an example of how folk-punk should be: culturally-sensitive, masterfully-crafted, clothed in timelessness. If it were an instrumental album, it’d be easy to mistake it as baroque. If it were judged on lyrics alone, you might expect a large influence of swamprock and country. But it instead rests in the confluence of artisan string melodies, upbeat folk, and lyrics that never shy from tough issues. Troll 2 stand out from their compatriots with their ability to balance all of these elements without sacrificing any relative portion of a single aspect. And while it’s unfortunately too late to add Death Magnanimous to your end-of-year favorites, this is certainly a band you’ll want to keep an eye on.

Our Rating: 8.5 (Best New Music)

Review: Slow Down, Rockstar by Fallow Land

For fans of: Six Gallery, Minus the Bear, Copeland, Foxing

Mathrock seems to be a pretty cliquey genre at time, even if it’s to the benefit of the genre. There’s the Midwest emo flavor, the “basically prog rock” version, variations of djent, or even the blossoming trend of mathpop. But as with any proper high school social context, there are outliers to these cliques – ones who might get along with everyone or the complete loners who are confident enough on their own.

Fallow Land carefully treads a space between post-rock and mathrock that is pretty rare. In fact, the closest proper comparison would be Six Gallery. In short, Slow Down, Rockstar is a chill, indie album that largely foregoes the punk and emo elements that seem embedded into mathrock’s genome.

Instead, the end result is somewhat of a poolside soundtrack of coffee shop playlist. It’s relaxing and captivating without feeling recycled or boring. And while a couple heavier moments (comparatively, anyway) are sprinkled in, the album’s sonic domain isn’t too far off from early Copeland or Keane in respect to dynamics. Many albums are mixed loud these days, but Fallow Land find a nice balance for their tracks.

The mathier elements are sprinkled in more subtly than songs crafted by Fallow Land’s compatriots; “The Body” may be the most obvious example based on its complex grooves, but even tracks like “The Eyes” showcase rhythmic prowess and abrupt-yet-precise shifts between segments.

The most refreshing aspect of Fallow Land’s songwriting is frontman/guitarist Whit Fineberg’s vocals. It’s hard to note any immediate comparisons, but it’s a timbre that, much like the rest of the composition, is neither bit too punk or too prog. There isn’t too much edge or any excessive flash here – it’s just a wealth of indie rock vocal treasure.

“The Boredom” is an exemplary track when it comes to showing the entire band at their best. Guitar lines are mathy. Lyrics contemplate existence. Bass is punchy. Drums are tight. It’s a smooth, melodic surface with a groovy undercurrent. Everything comes together in a sort of music symbiosis. Cap it off with a sweeping tremolo end and you’re left with a musical roller coaster that only ever ascends.

Slow Down, Rockstar may be a bit short at only eight tracks long, but not a second has gone to waste. It’s an emotional album complemented by powerful cinematic instrumentation. It’s mathy, but the technicality is more ornamental than front and center. Basically, it’s an intelligent indie rock album that explores themes of growing older, a work reminiscent of mid-2000s classics. It’s hard to imagine a better debut album from a band.

Our Rating: 8.5 (Best New Music)

Review: Lay My Head Down by Broken Field Runner

For fans of: Foxing, The World is a Beautiful Place, Pianos Become the Teeth, Touché Amoré

LA-based Broken Field Runner‘s sophomore release instantly evokes a similar mood to Touché Amoré’s Stage Four. While the bands showcase vastly different sounds, there’s some common ground in vulnerable, lamenting Cali emo. Since Wisconsin is a barren waste of snow for much of the year, I’m prone to associate beaches, palm trees, and warmth with good vibes.

There’s something striking about juxtaposing a would-be Utopian context alongside themes of pain, death, fear, and uncertainty. In fact, Tony Bucci’s lyrics seem to purposefully waltz into the uncomfortable: teenagers who die in a car crash on the way to prom, a mall shooter, general strife, and more.

And Bucci seems to play into the aforementioned tension as well: the album’s cover is a photo from a wedding and the singles were accompanied by summery, colorful imagery. At a glance, you might expect a fun pop record. But then you’re greeted by lyrics like:

If we’re all just bred for harvest,
if we’re to ever ward off death
it better be as starving artists,
it better be through drugs and sex,
it better be through my one true love.
You better never let me go,
but if you can’t do me the honor,
you better never tell me so

That’s not to suggest every song is crushing, but it’s certainly an emotionally-unnerving experience that thrives off disorientation. There are moments where Bucci doesn’t sing at all, instead having Laura Murphy take lead. There are bits of lo-fi recordings. There are extended spoken word segments. There’s even a bit of brass in true emo fashion. As soon as you feel you’ve figured out what Lay My Head Down is about, everything shifts and you once again need to navigate the new context.

Where most serious albums feel the need to provide a point of redemption, Lay My Head Down doesn’t settle for a happy ending. “Test Everything, Hold onto What’s Good” would seem to be more optimistic from title alone; instead, it’s a brooding eight-minute closer with the main refrain of ” I️ asked you why you lied. I️ was mistaken. I️ apologized.” The track grows in intensity, with Bucci belting the lyrics over a noisy guitar foundation. Even so, it’s one of the best tracks on the album and pairs well with “Palm Trees Wave” to bookend the album (“Put an Ocean Between My Self Pity & Me” feels more like a prelude than a true opener).

Broken Field Runner manages to not simply regurgitate the emo formula on this record. Its raw and authentic production matches the intensity of the lyrical subject matter. Its serious subject matter is paired with catchy choruses. It’s not a groundbreaking album, but it does just enough to break some old genre patterns. Bucci and friends are not afraid to take risks. Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t. But since when has punk-based music solely been about mass appeal? Lay My Head Down is a well-composed biography of struggle in the modern age that deserves a bit more attention.

Our Rating: 7.0 (Stand Out)

Review: Pink Haze by Exnations

For fans of: The Cure, Ra Ra Riot, Pale Waves, Phil Collins, Wildlife, The Killers

Exnations is shrouded in a certain enigma, the kind that conjures questions like “How is this band not huge already?” Though the Brooklyn trio’s discography consists of two EPs (the first released in 2018), the craftsmanship on Exnations’ songs has no trace of a dilettante mindset. “Knife”, a standalone single, may very well be my favorite song of any band released this year. So, it’s a complete mystery how, with ready access to the NY market, Exnations is still largely unknown.

Thankfully, that hasn’t deterred the band in the slightest from simply making good art – whether songs or their seemingly-endless stream of music videos. Exnations might be best described as indie-pop, and it’s an accurate way to classify their artistic approach. The masses should like them, but they aren’t living for the dopamine rush of social media engagement. They’ve embraced the freedom of the DIY scene.

Pink Haze, the group’s latest EP, is certainly the pinnacle of their work to date. It’s moody, nostalgic, somber, catchy, and so much more. It’s a reflection of ephemera, akin to the Japanese expression mono no aware. It’s an awareness that beauty and pain are often inseparable in the dilation of time.

Ultimately, there’s a pervasive cinematic vibe here as well. Even if you have seen Exnations’ slew of videos, it’s hard not to imagine other scenarios paired with the six tracks on the EP. 80s prom. Standing on a rainy city street at night. Spending your anniversary alone. Hanging out at an amusement park. The group carefully balance youthful longing with the pain of loss. The universal nature of these feelings, along with the actual compositions, make it easy for these songs to feel like soundtrack to a plurality of life circumstances.

Exnations may have presented a strong EP to the heart, but they didn’t neglect the mind by any stretch. The trio have found a way to craft dense songs that still translate well live. Reverberating guitar, shimmering synths, prominent bass, and tight drumming are the quintessential core of the band’s sound, paired with frontman Sal Mastrocola’s soothing vocals for a sound that is dynamic but never too aggressive. Needless to say, the songs are carefully composed and feel cohesive lined back to back. The lyrics are personal, juggling themes of love, loss, loneliness, joy, and moving forward.

“John Hughes Movie Soundtrack” is perhaps the highlight track of the album. It’s one of the faster tracks, and contributions from all three members are excellent. Taylor Hughes’ drumming is exemplary; John O’Neill’s bass parts are punchy; Sal Mastrocola’s riffs are catchy. It’s a great starting point for new listeners.

Other tracks still hold their own, though. “Tether” is a strong opener and sets the emotional tone of the EP. “Slow Erosion” is a slower track and showcases the band’s use of negative space. “Dreaming Still” is a hazy ballad outro. The emotional context of the album is only strengthened by their ability to change page. It’s akin to driving on a city street after spending hours on the highway, where you need an extra degree of awareness to adjust to the speed limit. The slower songs here manage to demand even more attention before of how the EP is laid out, and that makes “Dreaming Still” an especially-devastating track from an emotional perspective.

Pink Haze is strewn with intelligent retro-pop with equal shades of cinematic clout and dance floor sensibility. It’s a versatile album that is primed to be one of the highlights of 2019.

Our Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)

Review: With or Without by Overslept

FFO: tasty math rock riffs, pop rock vocals, immaculate rhythm sections

Technically-inclined music has typically distanced itself from its catchy indie-pop cousin. They’ve largely coexisted like high school cliques, shooting glances across the room to acknowledge the other exists, though this exchange is nothing more than minutia in the majority of cases. Most artists would have you believe that songwriting lives in this kind of binary; riff-driven songs engulfed in poetic lyrics face off against catchy, carefree songs you can’t wait to show your friends. There will be blood. Tickets on sale now starting at $10.

Actually, let me back up a bit. It would seem that some bands have a knack for carefully balancing these competing elements. It’s a strange process of musical osmosis whereby one extreme is diluted a bit but neither part is sacrificed. It’s the sort of mood that bands like TTNG and Anathallo carry with them, but even these bands have largely been constrained to specific circles of fans.

Denver-based Overslept seem to have found a rare place in modern music on With or Without, their 2019 sophomore LP. While it’s, at least in some respect, a heavier record than its predecessor, it’s an incredibly balanced set of songs. Beyond the aforementioned technical and pop-friendly elements, Overslept show their aptitude for diversity in other respects: loud and soft, energetic and tired, retrospective and hopeful, lament and laughter. It’s a record that reads like the human experience – it never dwells too much on any given feeling, but at the same time, it’s undeniably cohesive.

Some of the cohesion sits on the lyrical side. The album’s title is referenced several times (“Thirteen Thirty One”, “Anhedonia”, and the powerhouse title track) and it’s phrase met with different instrumentation each time. There’s also a subtle nod to touring partners Father Mountain on “Anhedonia” that only a handful of listeners will catch. Ultimately, the lyrics are very strong and the album certainly has a narrative played out through joy, doubt, pain, loss, and redemption.

However, it’s ultimately the context of the lyrics that makes With or Without such a strong album. Frontman Elias Armao’s delivery is excellent. Armao has one of the more unique voices in the indie rock genre, with a soulful elegance you’d find from Hotel of the Laughing Tree. It’s impassioned and earnest, yet there’s a radio-friendly quality all the same. This time around, he’s joined by fellow guitarist/vocalist Mickey Postilion who works in some harmonies and vocal trade-offs.

It wouldn’t be too unfair to call this a math-rock album. As such, the riffs are in no short supply and there are plenty of moments where a guitar part is just as catchy as a vocal chorus. Drums and bass aren’t given an easy job by any stretch, but the pocket never lets up for even a moment.

Without or Without is an amalgamation of the good things in life. It’s a music cookie-brownie that takes the strengths of competing dynamics and synergizes them. You’ll be belting out the lyrics one moment and having an internal heart-to-heart in the next. It’s a high-energy, pop-friendly album made by serious musicians with something to say, and that alone distinguishes Overslept from their peers. You may have overslept on this album, but it’s definitely worth your time.

Our Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)

Sampler: “The Drew Thompson Foundation” Kicks Off This Week in Alternative

The Drew Thomson Foundation, Picsel, Melted, Tummyache

This week we’re bringing you four new Indie Punk tracks straight from the basement show. Enjoy!

Phone Ring by The Drew Thomson Foundation

There seems to be a lack of catchy, hook driven punk music so far in 2019. Luckily Toronto’s The Drew Thomson Foundation has come to our collective rescue with their infectious new single Phone Ring. Phone Ring is power pop gold with itsbouncy verses, sing-along choruses, and immediately relatable lyrics maligning the nightmare that is modern dating. For fans of Jeff Rosenstock’s pre-Worry material and he and Chris Farren’s supergroup Antarctigo Vespucci, The Drew Thomson Foundation may well prove to be the new sensation. Their knack for writing humorous and kind of dorky songs about relationships without being overly self-deprecating (or just plain creepy) is certainly Rosenstock-esque and if Phone Ring is any indication they have a lot of the same unconventional charm that helped turn Rosenstock into the cult icon he is today. Be on the lookout for The Drew Thomson Foundation’s promising debut self-titled LP this September, and until then jam Phone Ring below.

 Fucked Society by Picsel

Sometimes accidents end up turning into huge creative discoveries. For UK alt-pop band Broken Fires one such accident happened during the writing stage for their forthcoming sophomore album when they unintentionally wrote two, completely different albums. The first was the one they set out to write and the second was a collection of rowdier songs that they didn’t think fit the “Frightened Rabbit meets Tall Ships” vibe of the band. The result was Picsel, an indie punk side-project much more akin to Lower Than Atlantis, and their political new single Fucked Society. Despite being a scathing indictment of modern life in Britain, Picsel’s newest is delivered in a smooth and catchy fashion, crooning lines like “licking dirt from the soles of polished shoes/ As they continue to walk all over you,” and turning “There was a time when we were free to love our fucked society” into an almost uplifting sounding chorus. The four-piece’s pop roots seep into Picsel in the best way, allowing them to write big, catchy songs, but not impeding them with tropes like so many artists that make the transition from pop to rock. I personally am very excited to hear the rest of their debut LP Modern Life Discovery when it debuts this Fall.

Bigger Maggots by Melted

There’s thin sliver of sound between the skate-punk end of pop punk and hardcore punk. It’s the bands in this sliver that separate Free Throw from Title Fight or PUP from Drug Church. Melted is one of those rare bands. Hailing from Long Beach, CA, Melted have all the aggression of a band like Drug Church but with just a dash of pop punk sensibility. They’re the kind of band that doubles their guitars to make them punch harder and isn’t afraid to put the snare on the 1, but they’re also the kind of band to use non-shouted backing vocals and actually write choruses. Their most recent single, Bigger Maggots, their first since releasing their 2018 LP Thin Skin, is a fast-paced track about overcoming insecurities and anxiety. Reminiscent of early Posture and the Grizzly, it’s a perfect example of their aggressive brand of punk that defies expectations by also being unconventionally catchy. 

Median by Tummyache

Nashville, aside from Country and CCM, is known for a very specific rock sound, usually involving sleek, polished instrumentals and Ryan Adam’s-style vocalists. Breaking this mold in spectacular fashion is Tummyache, a punky garage rock outfit that pulls more from Mitski and Cherry Glazerr than the refined sounds their home city is famous for. Tummyache is the brainchild of songwriter/producer Soren Bryce as an outlet to explore her own existentialist reflections on meaning and the human condition through the use of absurdism. Median in particular shows Bryce balancing delicately between two extremes: the total dissolution of meaning altogether and the hope she acknowledges to be self-created that she nonetheless needs to survive. It’s hammering guitar sounds add a visceral, anxious subtext to the probing lyrics, creating the sensation of an all-out war in Bryce’s head that she is holding back, if only barely, with remarkable poise. Making a song that is simultaneously aggressively honest and fairly heady that also feels this nuanced is no easy task, but Bryce rises to the challenge with the precision of a veteran. Tummyache’s debut EP, Humpday, is due out later this year.

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.

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