Quarantine Jams: What Our Writers Are Listening To

As the global pandemic develops, here’s what our writers are listening to, and why.

Let’s face the facts: we are living in scary and uncertain times. With most public life shutting down over the past few days, it’s been difficult to find a distraction from this fact. Everything happening on the news and in our communities shows that life is not normal. Meanwhile, we are stuck in doors washing our hands and twiddling our thumbs, waiting to see what will happen.

Fortunately, most of us still have access to our music libraries. As the global pandemic develops, here’s what our writers are listening to, and why.

NOTE: Bandcamp is giving their usual cut of the profits from purchases on the website to the artists on Friday, March 20th. Please consider purchasing these albums on Bandcamp to help the artists make money while they can’t play concerts, or albums from other artists that you love!

Ian’s pick: American Football, LP1

Anyone who knows me at a personal level will know about my love affair with American Football’s 1999 album. I first listened to it when I was probably 18 or 19. Since then, it has grown to be one of my favorite albums. It’s like a warm blanket and hot tea after a hard day. It’s the perfect soundtrack for any season, but particularly a chilly night.  But most of all, LP1 is one of those records that has the power to amplify my mood.  If I’m listening while happy, it fills me with a warm nostalgia that makes everything more beautiful.  While sad or anxious, its melancholy tone is more consoling than most any other album. 

As I’ve been dealing with the uncertainty of the high school that I teach at being shut down, and low-level anxiety while being alone in my apartment most of the time, the record has brought the warmth and companionship to get by.  It makes staying home appealing, because it brings out the coziness of life inside.  Maybe it’s the house on the album cover with the warm, yellow light shining out through the top window.  During this time, it’s nice to be reminded of the comfort of our own homes. Purchase LP1 on Bandcamp here.

Jason’s Pick: The New Year, The End Is Near

Western pop culture’s take on “apocalypse” usually involves people scavenging tinned meat from radiated convenience stores, or all of the ancient doomsday prophecies coming true (at once!). Or zombies. The End Is Near is apocalyptic, but in a way that hews closer to the word’s original meaning: it’s a revealing. In this case, The End Is Near revolves around anxieties that bind humanity.  

The New Year formed after beloved ’90s indie rock band Bedhead (often lauded as one of the formative “slowcore” bands) folded near the turn of the century. Songwriters/singers/guitarists/brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane still carry the Bedhead torch here: lots of single-note guitar lines woven together, odd time signatures, philosophy-after-four-drinks wordplay, and some surprisingly catchy melodies. And like Bedhead, The New Year sidestep a lot of standard rock tropes; this is  minimalist music without a clear verse-chorus-verse structure, which makes the occasional distorted guitars or hooks more powerful.

I genuinely love The End Is Near as a whole, but it has a few standouts. “Disease” is evergreen in its relevance, a rumination on the universal nature of suffering, specifically around illness. That it’s packaged with some nice guitar interplay and a slyly memorable melody doesn’t hurt. And “18” builds to a glorious climax while looking through the eyes of an elderly person reflecting on the limitations of the flesh. It’s chaotic, beautiful, and wonderfully humane. The End Is Near is full of songs like this, snapshots of people like us revealing their fears and heartaches. In a time of crisis, it’s a good reminder that we’re not alone. You can buy The End Is Near on vinyl here. You can also buy their latest album, 2017’s excellent Snow, on Bandcamp here.

Tyler’s Pick: Bell Witch, Mirror Reaper

My warning before suggesting this album is that this is an album that embodies despair. It is a monolithic exemplar of a degrading soul when faced with loss, destruction, death, and all that negative stuff. But oh my God is it beautiful. 

If you’re like me, the world doesn’t make sense and you’re constantly attempting to find meaning in it. With all the nonsense going on outside our closed doors, many of us are truly feeling the most negative emotions we possibly could be feeling at this point. Social isolation doesn’t necessarily breed positivity.

And sometimes, when we feel negative, experiencing art expressing those negative emotions helps us deal with them better. 

This album is one 80-something minute long track of the most droning, sludgy, metallic-tinged bass and drums that I’ve ever heard. It is an album depicting what it might sound like “on the other side.” To further cement this idea, the architects of the album use the voice of the at-the-time recently deceased drummer midway through as both a tribute to him and a reminder that death is always close. 

So yeah, if you’re not up for some awfully dark music in these awfully dark times and would like something maybe more positive, look elsewhere. Purchase here on Bandcamp.

Casey’s Pick: New Language, Come Alive

New Language burst on the scene in 2017 to critical acclaim and they quickly made their way on the list of my favorite bands. While their sound continues to evolve, their conviction is undying and their work ethic is indomitable. 

The band’s lyrics have always been socially-conscious, even laced with (non-partisan) political ethics. Their debut, Come Alive, is peppered with calls-to-action regarding critical thought, fighting through personal doubts, and persevering when the obstacles feel insurmountable. It’s a high-octane, intelligent release that musically straddles the line between hard rock and post-hardcore. It’s the kind of sound that typically gets abused and becomes offensively-commercial, but that’s not the case here. New Language seem to borrow as much influence from Bloc Party as they do from bands like ’68. 

Ultimately, Come Alive exists in the same emotional space as the current pandemic: urgent, uncertain, brooding, never stagnant. The lyrics are more timely than ever as we as a country, and as a human race, strive to make sense of the chaos and find order in the misaligned segments of society. Purchase here on Bandcamp.

 

 

Review: Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2

Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2 allows listeners access to someone else’s unfiltered consciousness while also allowing them to make of it what they want.

Much has been said about Mark Kozelek, good and bad.  From his slow-core days as front man of the Red House Painters in the 90s, to his rebranding as a folk-rock singer song-writer with Sun Kil Moon in the early 00s, to his resurgence of popularity with the release of his 2014 masterpiece Benji, there has been much artistic evolution and a fair amount of personal controversy.  Kozelek is one of the few artists whose evolution has been almost totally transparent through his art, while still being almost entirely reclusive from the media and interconnected cyber-world.  The lyrical content of his work has always been intensely personal, whether in the sparse poetry of his early work or his new, diary entry, sing-songy-spoken-word that he has adopted over the past five years.  During this time his musical output has nearly doubled, often releasing two or more projects every year, whether as Sun Kil Moon or solo collaborations with other artists. 

His latest release is Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2.  As the title implies, Kozelek has collaborated with these musicians before; this is the sequel to their first collaborative album from 2017.  On the surface, this record is no different from any of his releases since 2015.  The songs are long; all of the seven tracks are over eight minutes, with the full track list running to an hour and eighteen.  There are no choruses or hooks, and little in the way of conventional song structure at all. 

Instead, Kozelek and co. present an immersive, hypnotic world of lush piano parts, uneasy drum patterns, and harmonic guitars, all featuring Kozelek’s voice floating masterfully overtop.  It is feels appropriate to describe this album as a short-story collection in musical form.  Although he delves into spoken-word passages occasionally, the vocals are always subtly melodic, flowing easily along with the music.  The amount of detail and care that was put into the arrangements makes it clear that these are not simply backing-tracks made to be played in the underneath someone talking; these are songs that double as stories.  Kozelek has gone so far as to publish the complete lyrics to every song he has released from 1992-2019 in two volumes via his label Caldo Verde, demonstrating the importance of the lyrics to his art as being significant enough to form a body of work on their own.  It is clear that the music and lyrics are of equal importance here and in his whole discography, intermingling to form a mesmerizing world of sound and unfiltered thought. 

 What makes this album stand out from others in Kozelek’s discography is the musical world it presents.  Unlike the muddy This Is My Dinner or relatively sparse I Also Want To Die In New Orleans, the level of detail makes it possible to pay attention and be intrigued the whole way through.  Each song features multiple movements that are tied together by musical and lyrical motifs that appear throughout, keeping them from feeling like directionless experiments and free-association exercises.  Koz often breaks the fourth wall by talking about his own song-writing process, with lines like, “I find poetry in everything,” which typed out here out of context sounds incredibly pretentious, but comes across as sincere and true within the album. 

There are moments of hilarious instrumental and lyrical quirks as well.  On the middle track, “Chard Enchilada,” Kozelek spends each verse talking about underdogs who have to work harder to get ahead in life than others.  One such person is the bassoonist, who’s supremely un-cool instrument makes it difficult to find success in the music industry (spoiler: there is a bassoon solo right after the verse).  During the last track, he abruptly stops his musings to ask someone in the studio if he thinks the album is over eighty minutes yet, to which he replies, “um, I’ll have to check . . .”  It’s a comical moment of self-awareness. 

Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2 allows listeners access to someone else’s unfiltered consciousness while also allowing them to make of it what they want.  For me, there is usually one take-away that I get from these records, one phrase or verse that sticks with me when it’s all over.  This record’s moment comes at the end of the closing track as Kozelek narrates the experience of answering the studio door to find some evangelists from The Church Of Latter-day Saints.  He tells them, “Hey, this ain’t my cup of tea, but you showed up at my door to talk to me.  I know all about the angel Morona and Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates.  But you came here to talk with me, and I respect that.  You’re brave.  You showed up.” 

Our Rating: 7.9 (Stand-Out)

Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2 is out now via Caldo Verde Records.

Review: Start A Fire That Sings You A Song by Social Caterpillar

FFO: folk punk, chamber pop, post-rock

“Experimental” has become a blanket term for describing music that deviates even so slightly from the norm. It’s a term that manages to equivocate musique concrète, field recordings, ambient noise, and avant-garde with the likes of prog rock, metal, and indie pop alike. That’s not to say that there’s nothing of substance to the creative elements of those genres. Rather, the level of experimentation sits at a palatable level where they’re largely conducive of a song’s pop appeal. True experimentation is typically less digestible on a first take – it’s accompanied by a certain uneasiness; it conjures questions of the very things the listeners is experiencing. Experimentation certainly exists in music, but it’s not always easy to find artists who (intentionally) play with this part of the human psyche as a way to enhance their performances.

Milwaukee, WI-based Social Caterpillar find their place in an enigmatic intersection of a variety of styles. Chamber-style string arrangements? Check. Walls of noise and static? Check. Samples and voiceovers? Check. Six-minute songs? Check. It’s a sound that seems to borrow from early emo, interject some of the angular elements of Slint, and paint things over with a multitude of electro-acoustic arrangements that feel simultaneously psychedelic and vaudeville. It’s dark, cinematic, raw, and beautiful.

The group’s latest release, Start A Fire That Sings You A Song, reads like a narrative that charts this dense landscape of sounds and mood. It’s a mere eight tracks long, with almost half being interludes, but it’s certainly not light on content. The shortest non-interlude is over four minutes long, and several tracks top six minutes.

As for the music itself, the album wastes no time showing its experimental side. The aptly-named “Cult Chant” begins with a dissonant guitar line and a distorted voice overlay. Warped synthesizer sounds ultimately render the voice inaudible, and after the voice overlay fades, we’re presented with a repetition of “I don’t like what I’ve become”, progressively adding in harmonies. It’s a striking first taste of the album that resolves to a somewhat-normal state shortly after as the strings come in. Slowcore-esque segments weave in and out as they pass by passages of acoustic pop.

Just when things start to feel comfortable, the track fades out into the noisy “Interlude A”. This interlude feels intentionally alien in all respects – whereas “Cult Chant” featured a strong core of acoustic instrumentation, there is nothing organic to be found on its successor.

“Caught a Fly” returns us to a more concrete listening experience, this time opting for a more upbeat approach on things. A mid-tempo guitar line with occasional harmonics serves as the backbone, while intense, staccato vocals drift over top. Of course, this veneer of bliss dissolves into dissonance before long. The fury seems further augmented by brooding string arrangements. And while there are a couple rays of light throughout the later half of the track, the end is accompanied by a chaotic crescendo that would even make The Chariot proud.

“Interlude B” is much like the previous interlude – otherworldly, digital, foreign. There are even hints of explosions hidden under the otherwise-synthetic noise. It’s not something you’d want to loop, but it certainly does add some emotional context to the album.

“Bad Electricity” starts off with a folk/alt-country type guitar line paired with warm, layered vocals. It feels like a campfire song of sorts that juggles a bit of emo influence as well. It’s admittedly one of the simpler songs to some degree, but this is largely a positive. As to be expected at this point, things don’t stay in one place too long and the track shifts gears. The second half is fuller, more vibrant, laced with intermittent falsetto and a faster past.

The abrupt end of “Bad Electricity” feeds into “Interlude C”, the shortest and most barren of the three interludes. It’s far less layered that its counterparts, and it balances some organic elements against synth backdrops. There’s a bit of a melodic segment, though it doesn’t have time to develop too far.

With the interludes out of the way, “New New Year” bursts forth with full force. It’s a drum-heavy track that scales back on guitar a bit. The resounding chant of “Life is just playgrounds for vibrations” is a highlight, and it’s followed by captivating string motif. Ultimately, it’s reminiscent of another Wisconsin band – Appleton’s Cave Paintings. For the typical reader, it boils down to this: thoughtful and poetic art-rock with tight drums and mid-tempo melodies.

The album ends much the way it began – a guitar part and voiceover. However, it’s no issue making out the words this time. It’s a punk ethos, a call to stand up for the value of the lives of others and ourselves. These socio-political overtones are met with some of the most abrasive instrumentation on the album so far. Without vocals, the song would be at home on a horror movie soundtrack. Lyrics are fitting, with an air of protest and a dose of “Eat the rich”. A minute-or-so outro leads to yet another abrupt end, this time for the album as a whole

So, what’s there to make of this release? It’s authentic, balancing raw segments with production that is ultimately professional. It’s adventurous and takes plenty of risks. There’s a lot to like here, but there’s also some tension as well. Again, it’s hard to place this album in one exact genre but there’s a level of folk-punk commentary at play at times which seems to be part of the main theme of the album.

However, there are a couple points of contention. Firstly, the political commentary feels a bit trite – it’s not to say that there aren’t real issues in the world that need to be fixed, but it feels like many artists and civilians are regurgitating the same lines (like the aforementioned “Eat the rich”). This comes across as a bit cliché or perhaps even pandering, especially since I can’t imagine anyone in office to pull up an obscure experimental indie folk album for casual listening – the audience likely already agrees with these sentiments and that bit doesn’t add much to the existing conversation. That’s not a summary of the lyrics of the entire album, which, for the most part, are a bit more abstract and poetic.

Secondly, I’m not sure where I stand on the interludes. I appreciate the subtle nod between the opening track (where the voice over is muffled) and final track (where the voice over is easy to understand) and how the interludes also get less chaotic over time. They’re not overly-long, either – which is nice. However, the transitions between regular songs and interludes isn’t smooth and it would have been interesting to hear the interludes engulf the ends and starts of songs to truly make the album feel seamless.

Thirdly, and this is minor, it’d be nice to hear some of the compositions built out a bit more. There are a lot of instrumental layers to the album, but they’re rarely all seen in the same space. Drums shine every now and then; synths are largely constrained to the interludes. It’d be cool to hear some of the minimalist arrangements paired with more wall-of-sound, post-rock-esque builds. The band does a great job of what they do use throughout the album, but sometimes it feels a little too bare.

Ultimately, Social Caterpillar has managed to lace Start A Fire That Sings You A Song with true experimentation – and like any good experiment, there’s risk involved. Ultimately, the flaws are pretty limited and the end result is a musical cocktail made of ingredients of unknown origin. Its flavor is at times sweet and at times bitter – but when all is said and done, you’ll ask the bartender for another one.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand-Out)

Review: Ten Seated Figures by Yes We Mystic

FFO: Radiohead, Anathallo, performance art, human psychology

Manitoba quintet Yes We Mystic’s latest album seems more like an art project mixed with guerrilla marketing strategy rather than a mere set of songs. Indeed, to prepare for the album, five additional guests were recruited into the mix – as members of the band who were featured in press, interviews, and even music videos. The band went as far as scheduling two separate shows at the same time where, with each version of the band handling a single show. The band later pulled back the curtain on the stunt, describing how it coincides with the album’s themes of the fallibility of human memory and the tendency to distort the truth as we look back on our lives.

While this isn’t the first time the group has been creative with their marketing efforts (Forgiver was accompanied by anonymous confessions gathered by a prompt they had scattered publicly), it’s certainly their most ambitious project to date. Horror movies have clowns walk around with balloons – but Yes We Mystic hands us a Mandela Effect-driven exhibition that at best causes us to question reality and at worst causes us to lose it entirely.

The album itself is perhaps equally disorienting in some respects; orchestral layers are piled in multitudes, while a combination of sound processing and playing technique manage to largely obfuscate the source of any given tone. Is it a synth or a violin? It’s frankly hard to tell at times. Ten Seated Figures is not a casual listen as a result. It’s too intentional to enjoy in the background.

Yes We Mystic’s sound has always been hard to pin. It’s easy to delegate them to “orchestral” or “folk” designations, but these labels alone undermine the heavy pining toward electronica and chamber pop. Their sound isn’t completely esoteric, but at the same time it’s clearly the members have a high taste in art.

Lyrically, the album doesn’t take any shortcuts. Thankfully the band contributed toward their own Genius page to shed some insight on the stories behind the songs. “Young Evil”, for instance, explores the power of expectation over human behavior and how preconceptions of who we are can shape who we will become. “Win Ben Stein’s Money” name-drops a defunct Comedy Central show while wrestling with the power of capital and its ability to destroy relationships. “Please Bring Me to Safety” more directly addresses the dissociation and question of if life is an elaborate fabrication. Ten Seated Figures seems more like a parable of vices left untamed; we see the characters altered by their circumstances, losing site of themselves to external agents. And while we don’t have the full background on these songs and the characters they depict, there’s a good chance that more clues lie in the album’s artwork.

Ultimately, Yes We Mystic have taken an artistic risk this time around – but it’s definitely one they’ve spent time calculating. Ten Seated Figures is laced with frantic, oft-danceable art pop with orchestral elements. It’s undeniably a little weird (for the standard music fan, anyway), but it’s not any more removed from the mainstream than Radiohead ultimately. Tracks like “Win Ben Stein’s Money” and “Vanitas Waltz” are quick hits, while others like “Italics” and “Please Bring Me to Safety” are growers. It’s an album that is far more balanced than an initial casual listen would indicate.

Ten Seated Figures is definitely a successful sophomore LP for the group, and it’s arguably stronger than Forgiver in many respects. The musical arrangements are more calculated, and the overlying concept helps unify the songs even despite their inevitable differences. It’s also their first time owning the responsibilities in the studio, but production feels crisp and professional. All in all, Yes We Mystic’s academic sensibilities and performance art integration are admirable elements that augment an already-strong album and make this one of the most interesting things to happen in the underground music scene all year.

Our Rating: 8.5 (Best New Music)