Underrated Albums: Club Misery EP by Misery Club

Misery Club is an emo-rap supergroup comprised of Wicca Phase Springs Eternal (founder of hip-hop collective Goth Boi Clique), Lil Zubin (lauded by many as the Soundcloud Weeknd), Fantasy Camp (renowned underground producer and songwriter), and Jon Simmons aka Coward (former vocalist of Balance & Composure). The group quietly released their debut EP this past summer, and it’s probably been one of the most addicting releases of the year.

Produced by underground hitmakers Nedarb and Foxwedding, each of the four tracks sounds sleek, effortless, and catchy. The clean guitar samples are overlaid flawlessly with tightly constructed beats, which are some of the best produced I’ve heard this year in the underground. They do not go out of their way to pull off anything groundbreaking or abnormal, but provide the perfect soundscapes to let the vocalists shine.

And man, do they shine. Perhaps the strongest aspect of Misery Club is the diversity of singing/rapping skills and delivery. The lyrical, emo drone of Wicca Phase’s sing-rapping contrasts wonderfully with the pristine melodies provided by Lil Zubin. Fantasy Camp’s understated, soft delivery makes Simmons’ harsh auto-tune pop out in a way that would not be possible without the other. The four take turns in the spotlight throughout the EP; there is no definitive star in Misery Club. Each member gets a first verse on the project, setting their own unique mood on each track.

“River of Blood” kicks off the album as Zubin’s haunting voice floats over a detuned keyboard, “Oh the river of blood in my veins went dry / last night I went to sleep and died / ghost of Zubin / bring me back to life.” The line is hilariously self-aware (and EPIC) in how dramatic it is, and when the beat drops, it’s the first “oh shIT!” moment on the record. The other three members trade verses on the rest of the track, with Zubin coming back to offer a hook before Simmons closes it off. It’s a total banger, the type of funny, sincere, and incredibly ear-wormy writing that instantly gets you hooked.

“Left Side” is the Wicca Phase fronted track, beginning with a melancholy guitar riff and a slowed-down, minimalistic beat. His monotone vocal delivery fits perfectly with the vibe of the track, as the gloom sets in, “And one time I was so drunk off of red wine / so I could talk to you and with honesty / the problems only come up when I come down / and yet I’m fine when I finally get sleep. He is interrupted by Simmons, who’s soaring melodies contrasts beautifully with the previous verse, running right into Fantasy Camp’s smooth flow, finishing off with Zubin’s trademark vibrato, leaving the listener totally satisfied and sufficiently bummed out, but in a “yeah I’m sad but I still like to party” kind of way.

“Bad Mood” begins similarly, this time with Simmons providing the hook, “Never leave you in a bad mood / girl, I promise if I had you / I’ll never leave you in a bad mood / all my life I wish I had you,” bringing Misery Club the closest to Backstreet Boys territory they have come yet. The song flows by with a similar mid-tempo, breezy feel to the previous track, but this does not serve to harm the record, building the consistency.

The final track, “Lifesaver,” starts off with nearly a minute of ominous droning and 808 hits, standing out from the slow build of the previous tracks. What follows is Fantasy Camp’s lead off verse, one of the most haunting lyrical moments on the album, “Now I’m lying on the ground, foreign objects in the sky / they shower me in blood while I try to rest my eyes / I see you in a vision and you slowly start to cry / I’m going far away now, and I always wonder why.” It closes off with Wicca Phase asserting himself as the king of darkness just before the 808s begin to fade, “I’m a high priest, I come from the fourth world / I come up with new words, even you don’t understand, no.” The EP concludes with the ghost of Zubin once again floating over the chaos.

Although this release is not necessarily groundbreaking either lyrically or sonically, it stands as one of the strongest testaments to emo-rap as a sustainable genre, and begs the question of whether emo as a whole will go in this direction in the next decade. The potential for popular appeal in this release is absurd. Between the addicting beats, #relatable lyrics and charisma, Misery Club could be America’s next boy band. With another EP on the way, and all of the members releasing their various solo music, I’m excited to see what they come up with over the next few months as this sub-genre continues to grow and evolve.

Underrated Albums: Extralife by Darlingside

It’s over now.” Normally these three harrowing words mark the end of something: the end of an era, the close of a traumatic event, or the white flag at the end of a long war. For Darlingside this phrase signifies all of the above, but it doesn’t signify the end of the story. On the contrary, these words open the Cambridge, Massachusetts folk quartet’s latest album Extralife, a concept album set on a post-apocalyptic Earth shortly after the close of the nuclear holocaust. It is on this scorched Earth, where life as we know it ceases and anything that remains becomes itself extra-life, that Darlingside begin their musical journey surveying the wreckage; probing for signs of life and reflecting back on the choices that led to such desolation.

On Extralife, Darlingside create a soundscape that is lush and vibrant, thanks in part to the beautiful melding of acoustic guitar, strings, woodwinds, and subtle electronic drones, each made more ethereal by a healthy dose of reverb. However, while the arrangements are stunning, what really seals the deal are the near constant four part vocal harmonies that could make even Simon and Garfunkel jealous. When combined, these two elements create a feel that is much more Narnia than Mad Max, though there is a noticeable melancholic bent to the otherwise mystical sonic palette. It is at once filled with immediate beauty and distant longing, the kind of album that one can appreciate equally when feeling sad or feeling happy. Armageddon never sounded so beautiful.

Though it would still succeed just on the merits of its immersive atmosphere and catchy melodies, Extralife also manages to be more than just a vibe album. Each song, or at least the discernable majority, starts contextually with the catastrophic nuclear event and becomes a snapshot of a particular experience. When put together the songs on Extralife form a sort of patchwork picture of an apocalyptic future, one where the narrators are aware of the overarching narrative, how this catastrophe arrived and all of the things left in its wake, but the listener is forced to piece together the story and its resulting message from fragments. In the title track we get a picture of the event itself as “Mushroom clouds reset the sky.” A few tracks later Futures flashes back to before the apocalypse with the words of a “Mrs. President” pleading in the chorus, “It’s not ever too late.” This refrain is juxtaposed with that of the next track, here presumably post-apocalypse again, where the narrator’s father urges him “hold your head up high”before the narrator concludes the vignette with “underground the new life thunders up and on.”

Despite predominantly leaning into their world and storytelling, there are several moments that remain poignant with or without their narrative context. Perhaps the most mesmerizing track, Old Friend, shows the narrator reflecting on an old friend who presumably has died. It is lyrically the shortest song on the album, only three stanzas of three lines each, but says all that it needs to say in just one stanza: “Old friend I/ Think of you still sometimes/ Sure as the river bending into the light.” Another theme that jumps beyond the story is the preeminence of history and what it means to find one’s place in it. In Singularitywe see a post-apocalyptic man “taking pictures of cement… for the history books on mother Earth.” On Hold Your Head Up High we once again see emphasis put on the ties between humanity and the need to preserve its likeness: “See that humankind is you/ Like all the rest, down to/ The scratches on the album that you’re singing to.” Darlingside probe at this question much more directly in Rite Hayworth, a song about famous, historical women in the early 20thCentury where the question of how one stands out “in a colorless sea” amounts to how one knows what it means to be loved. It is a fitting question for an album looking back at civilization from desolation, but also a fitting question in real, everyday life.

That is the true strength of Extralife, that the story is more than entertainment or a thought experiment, but as the final track, Best of the Best of Times somewhat reveals, it is very much real in its own right. While the chorus “We’re a long way, long way from the best of the best of times” is a proper reflection of the post-fallout predicament of the narrator, it is also buffered by images of clocks winding down, the world saying farewell, and a closing verse that begins “and I wonder/ whether our days are unnumbered” and ends with the dream of finally waking up to be pulled from a shipwreck “all equal and safe.” Here we find what feels like a real, pertinent warning that perhaps we are already a long way from the best of times in our current world and seemingly closer instead to the full collapse characterized throughout most of the album. This turns us back to the question of history and how humanity’s story will be preserved. It won’t do much good to take pictures of concrete once life is destroyed, but if we learn from our mistakes now then perhaps those who follow us won’t have to see what comes extra-life.

Underrated Albums: This Is My Dinner by Sun Kil Moon

Initially rising to fame in the 1990s as the frontman of slow-core kings The Red House Painters, singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek is now mainly known for his work under the moniker Sun Kil Moon.  Named after a Korean boxer, Sun Kil Moon’s sound has evolved drastically over the last two decades.  The band’s first album Ghosts Of The Great Highway (2003) sounded like a somewhat more folk-driven version of The Red House Painters later work, even recorded with many of the same band members.  2010’s Admiral Fell Promises saw Kozelek shedding the full-band instrumentation of most of his previous work, favoring a nylon-string guitar and his voice.  Two years later Among The Leaves was released, which featured more of the nylon-string style, but incorporated a stream-of-consciousness style of lyricism that stood in stark contrast to Kozelek’s previous writing, which was often sparse and riddled in metaphor.

2014’s Benji garnered widespread critical acclaim for Sun Kil Moon.  For the most part, Benji stuck with the same style of his previous two releases, occasionally incorporating full band arrangements, and using the stream-of-consciousness lyric style to great effect.  Most of all, listeners were affected by the brutal honesty of the songs, many of which deal with the loss of loved ones, from the perspective of a veteran songwriter who is coming to terms with being in the second half of his life.

Since then, Kozelek has struggled to gain acclaim.  2015’s Universal Themes and 2017’s Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood received middling to negative reviews, as Kozelek delved even farther into the avant-garde, with both albums including many songs spanning over 10 minutes in length.  Listeners complained that Kozelek was no longer writing with the focus seen in his earlier work, and was just elaborating on self-centered minutia.

2018’s This Is My Dinner is no different.  The album spans an hour-and-a-half over the course of ten tracks, mainly chronicling Kozelek’s time touring Europe in November of 2017.  The first track “This Is Not Possible” features a laid-back, old school jam beat over top of which Kozelek talk-sings, beginning with a story about trying (unsuccessfully) to get into a Frankfurt venue, and ending (nine minutes later) with Kozelek singing about the process of recording the song itself.  Comedically, nearly every stanza of the song ends with the band softly chanting, “Yes, this is possible!” or “This is not possible!” back to Kozelek in response to a question in the narrative, almost like the chorus in a Shakespeare spoof.  Example:

Koz: Is it possible that my favorite meal is chicken and waffles?

Band: This is not possible!

Koz: Is it possible that the United States President needs to be admitted into a mental hospital?

Band: Yes, this is possible!

Koz: Is it possible that I’m singing this song in Berlin in front of a thousand people tonight?

Band: This is not possible!

On this release, Kozelek’s lyrics jump from the hilarious to the heart breaking very quickly in the span of a single track.  The title track finds him recalling a tour in Norway during which he received a call informing him that his beloved cat is near death.  He embarks on the flight home, racing death to see his pet before she dies, “The whole thing was so upsetting / and the anxiety was building so badly on the plane / and I kept writing in my journal / ‘please Pink, don’t die on me / please Pink, don’t die on me / please Pink, don’t die on me while I’m up here in the sky / I’ll hate myself forever if I could not kiss you goodbye.’”

The second half of the album sees Kozelek revisiting his childhood and the music that he grew up with that influenced him to be a musician in the first place.  In the song “David Cassidy,” he announces his intention to cover “Come On Get Happy” by the Partridge Family several times before the song cuts abruptly, jumping right into a one-minute rendition of the classic track.  After, he plays a long rendition of AC/DC’s “Rock N’ Roll Singer,” and then wraps up the record with two now “standard” stream-of-consciousness tracks.

What makes this record great is not it’s unconventional form, or it’s humor or tear jerking moments, but the way in which Kozelek’s writing style opens you up and immerses you into his world.  While some might view his writing as boring, tedious, and at times preachy, it offers a wholly unique perspective as you enter the head of a man who sees everything, and I mean everything, as significant and worthy of being written about.

When most of us look back upon our lives, we think of the big moments.  Graduations, weddings, divorces, moves, deaths of those close to us.  While those things are certainly significant, we often fail to recognize that the majority of life is lived between these moments.  Most of our lives are lived rushing to work, going grocery shopping, staring at our phones, talking to friends, waiting for the next moment.  Kozelek’s music makes every moment feel huge and this is where his writing succeeds.  He recognizes the intricacies of our lives and pays attention to them, honoring the quiet, busy, monotonous, and annoying moments as sacred.

This Is My Dinner is easily the most light-hearted album Kozelek has released, maybe ever.  He sounds like he’s having fun on this release, moving from story to story, detail to detail, reveling in the glory of all of it.  Aside from diehard fans, most probably will not bother with this.  If you haven’t heard a Kozelek album before, go back and listen to Benji, maybe a few Red House Painters albums, and then when you have an afternoon alone, sit down and crack open a beer and throw this on, and you’ll be surprised at how often you want to listen again.

Underrated Albums: On Watch by Slow Mass

The year is 2018 and guitar-driven music is once again in need of revitalization. A few years ago the 2010’s Emo Revival hit full swing, inspiring a new wave of pop-punk-but-this-time-it’s-dorky bands, twinkly math-rock depressed with the state of life in the American Midwest, and self-described loser-rock produced largely in suburban bedrooms and determined to self-destruct at all costs. Roughly a decade ago, when all of these sounds blew up they breathed new life into a musical medium that many had already declared dead. Now with the Emo Revival beginning to lose its steam, the realm of guitar music is once again due for new ideas. Enter: Chicago’s Slow Mass and their debut LP On Watch.

On Watch opens, after a brief intro, with the screech of guitar feedback and two dueling, distorted guitars laid over frenzied drumming courtesy of Josh Sparks (Standards – Into it. Over it.). It hits with the force of a car crash, sending the listener reeling before it retreats on cue to a subdued verse led by the soft crooning of bassist/vocalist Mercedes Webb. The transition is simultaneously drastic and effortless, somehow making what should be a jarring juxtaposition of sounds seem nuanced and natural.

Throughout the album, Slow Mass continue to hold these sounds and dynamics in contrast to one another, at times bordering on pure chaos and at times producing sounds that can’t be described as anything other than beautiful. On My Violent Years, a sparse acoustic arrangement suddenly flourishes with a myriad of woodwind instruments and ethereal vocal harmonies into a rising crescendo that never loses the gentleness of the piece as a whole. Three tracks later E.D. kicks down the door with its dissonant, frenetic brand of hardcore and lays waste to the room before handing the reigns over to the calm shuffling of The Author. Sometimes, like in the plodding Suburban Yellow, they move between both moods in the same song. In still other songs, like penultimate track Schemes, the instrumental and the lyrics seem to create different moods simultaneously. It is this masterful ability to create nuance out of something drastic and extreme that sets Slow Mass apart from their contemporaries. It is this very same ability that makes On Watch a clinic on album composition.

Lyrically, On Watch often leans into the Jeff Tweedy school of cryptic and somewhat obscure. Like Tweedy, however, it is apparent that the lyrics are rarely if ever meaningless, rather they seem to dance around the subject, perhaps giving the listener its general shape but never exposing it in clear terms. In this way deciphering what the songs are about becomes a bit like the old grade-school illustration of feeling an elephant with your eyes closed and trying to explain what you feel. For the ever-shifting, somewhat mysterious feel of the album as a whole this brand of lyricism works quite well, in part because though the lyrics may be cryptic they are not vague. The imagery on On Watchis often vivid, with lines like “a walled up border collie”, “spray painted scenester/ king of the bottom feeders”, “a newborn fib/ and a loser’s lisp”, and “you peel me off like dead skin.” In the few moments where Slow Mass give you something direct it is usually simple, but impactful, such as the central line in closing track G’s End: “All I’ve wanted to say/ is I hope you find peace today.”

Here in their lyricism Slow Mass once again showcase both the tension and the compatibility of extremes, creating a lyrical atmosphere where obtuse images are juxtaposed with direct, easily intelligible phrases such as: “There’s nothing like getting up before dawn to start wasting your life.” Alongside the ever-changing, constantly metamorphosizing music, the lyrics help create an album that seems to have it’s finger on something real, but intangible; everyday, but mysterious; pretty out there, but still grounded somewhere. It is the kind of album that is both mechanically innovative, but also emotive and thoughtful; an album that is unapologetically artsy without feeling overly self-indulgent. Perhaps it is exactly the kind of album that we need to jolt the guitar music world back to life.

Our Rating Scale

Trying to rate albums, like rating any kind of art, is an inherently subjective task. In order to remove as much bias as is humanly possible, we try to rate albums based on what they are trying to accomplish more so than their genre, “sound”, or authenticity. To do this we try to take into account the artist’s intentions, the content of the album, and our personal responses as listeners before assigning each album a numerical value. We love all kinds of music and it is at the core of our mission to help artists, so we do not publish negative reviews or hit pieces. We would rather praise things we think are worth praising than fish for clickbait with negative reviews that don’t help artists or our readers.

That said, it should be noted that our rating scale looks a little different than that of many of our contemporaries. Where a score in the 6-6.9 range would be considered a mixed review in some blogs, here it is the baseline positive score. Rather than signifying a flawed album that could be better, it instead signifies a strong album with a modest goal (which is often to fit neatly into a narrow genre category). The majority of the albums we cover will land in the 6-7.9 range, with a few stand out albums in the 8-8.9 range, and only a hand full of albums scoring 9 or above. The most important thing to remember is that if we are reviewing the album, we like it and think it deserves to be heard, so don’t take offense if we don’t give your favorite band a 10, it doesn’t mean we don’t like them!

Here is a rundown of our scoring system:

6.0-6.9 – It’s Solid

It’s a good example of its genre, or what it’s trying to do. It may not be the most impressive or ambitious example, but it does what it’s trying to do well. It’s a meat n’ potatoes kind of album. These are the kind of albums that you’re going to listen to multiple times over the year when you’re in the mood for a specific sound. For instance: “man I really just want a good old-fashioned pop-punk record, I’m gonna put on Knuckle Puck’s second album.”

7.0-7.9 – It’s Great For its Context

It’s a great example of its genre, or what it’s trying to do. Of all the artists trying to do this thing, these folks are some of the best at it. These albums stick out compared to other similar albums and might be great gateway albums to get people into the genre if they’re not familiar with it. These albums might be considered dark-horse classics in their respective genres.

8.0-8.9 – It Transcends its Genre/Context

These are albums that do something special and might merit a listen from people who don’t usually like the genre this album is coming from. Oftentimes these are cases where the artist pulls off something very poignant in his/her art. Or, this can happen when an artist begins to successfully experiment with new ideas and sounds that aren’t traditionally found in his/her native genre and pulls off something that feels ambitious and groundbreaking.

9.0-9.9 – A Masterpiece/ A Front-Runner for Album of the Year

We think that this album stands head and shoulders over all the other albums that came out this year (or in a down year, comparably to the prior year). This album hit all the right notes, tugged all the right heartstrings, pulled off all the right ambitious moves and left us awestruck. We will come back to this album for years to come.

10.0 – A Generational Classic

This is the rare album that comes out maybe once a decade or so that redefines what we thought was possible in music, makes an incredibly poignant and timely statement, and should be remembered as a highly potent cultural landmark for the foreseeable future. We do not give out 10s on a regular basis.