Review: Better Oblivion Community Center (Self-Titled)

“Better Oblivion Community Center is easily one of the best albums we have heard this year. Not only is it an example of phenomenal folk-rock songwriting, but also a truly fun project for as serious as the subject matter is.”

FFO: Phoebe Bridgers, Bright Eyes, Folk-Rock

Apparently, Phoebe Bridgers really likes working with other people.  After releasing last year’s excellent boygenius EP in October with fellow indie stars Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, she has returned with another collaborative album, with virtually no prior warning.  This past Thursday, our ears were blessed by the self-titled debut from Better Oblivion Community Center, a collaboration between Bridgers and emo-folk veteran Conor Oberst (most famous for his work with Bright Eyes). 

Although the album was a surprise to everyone, it is not the first time that the two have collaborated.  Bridgers’ excellent debut Stranger In The Alps (2017) features a duet with Oberst on the back half of the record called “Would You Rather.”  The collaboration made sense on the album; Bridgers’ blend of haunting lyrics and folk-rock melodies bears obvious influence from Oberst’s work, which she likely would’ve listened to while growing up.  It was a point of connection on the record to a previous generation of songwriters, showing the progression of the genre over time. 

While “Would You Rather” is a duet and sounds like one, none of the songs on Better Oblivion Community Center play off as duets.  It definitively sounds like a band effort.  Although some songs have a more hushed, acoustic environment, most have some sort of full-band arrangement.  And, while Bridgers and Oberst do take turns on lead-vocal duties, they are more often singing at the same time.  Although side-by-side their voices can sound like an odd pairing (to me, Oberst’s nasally, cracked voice always sounded kind of funny next to Bridgers on “Would You Rather”), when they sing together the contrast works quite well.  Sometimes Bridgers is mixed louder and sometimes Oberst is, but it is done in a way that spreads the tonal emphasis perfectly, helping their two distinct voices to blend and compliment one another. 

The album also showcases both singers’ abilities as lyricists.  The haunting opener “Didn’t Know What I Was In For,” is a Phoebe lead track where she, in her detailed style, takes the listener down the road of an existential crisis in the form of cosmic helplessness, “I didn’t know what I was in for / when I signed up for that run / there’s no way I’m curing cancer, but I’ll sweat it out / I feel so proud for all the good I’ve done.”  Conor joins her on the chorus, and although you can surmise that this is a Phoebe song, he sounds perfectly natural singing along with her. 

Although Oberst does not disappoint at all as a lyricist, his writing voice is so unique that Bridgers occasionally has a hard time keeping up in the same way that he does on her songs.  The Oberst songs are the ones that, while strong, sound less like a band, and more like a Conor Oberst project.  Again, this is not necessarily bad, but it makes the record slightly uneven at points.  This is perhaps the strength and weakness of the album.  Having more than one fantastic songwriter on the project is a dream, but as a result, it lacks the cohesion and emotional tension of both artists’ previous work at some points. 

Better Oblivion Community Center is easily one of the best albums we have heard this year.  Not only is it an example of phenomenal folk-rock songwriting, but also a truly fun project for as serious as the subject matter is.  This record sounds like it was a joy to make and collaborate on; it comes through in every performance.  While it may not be as emotionally gripping as their solo work, it doesn’t have to be in order to be a great record.  Also, I’ve got to say, I really, really hope they tour together. 

Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)

For info on how we score albums see our rating scale.

Label: Dead Oceans

Release Date: Jan 24, 2019

The DIY Deep Dive: “Parental Guidance” by Ok O’Clock

“Life isn’t PG 13, Life has language And full frontal nudity
Its got drug abuse and depictions of minors drinking
Its got gore and it gets ugly”

FFO Sorority Noise, The Hotelier, Free Throw

The DIY Deep Dive is a monthly column to showcase impressive DIY touring artists who are in the very early stages of their career. These artists may not always have the most glitzy or refined recordings, but their underlying talent shines through their low budget. To qualify for this column an artist must have less than 2000 social media followers and preferably be independent, while displaying the talent and creativity of acts much larger. Think of this as a column for early-adopters: get in on the ground floor with these artists and help them get to the next level.

Our DIY Deep Dive for January, 2019 is Parental Guidance from Kansas City emo artist Ok O’ Clock.

“Parental Guidance” by Ok O’Clock

Lance Rutledge, aka Ok O’Clock

Life isn’t PG 13, Life has language 
And full frontal nudity 
Its got drug abuse and depictions of minors drinking 
Its got gore and it gets ugly 
Its a compilation of every life colliding 
It’s a conflagration of stressful nights and anxiety 
It’s the mom next door worried about her son 
Because its 3 AM in the morning 
And he hasn’t come back from that party

Parental Guidance (song) by Ok O’Clock

The sophomore full-length from Kansas City, MO songwriter Lance Rutledge is a vulnerable reckoning with grief on the cosmic level. Here he tries to process a world that seems to be unraveling; attempting to reconcile the death, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse pervading his circumstances with the concept of a loving and caring God. It’s confessionalism at its most frank and unapologetic, calling to mind recent emo monoliths Sorority Noise and The Hotelier.

There is an overwhelming sense of unease that carries through the whole album. This manifests itself not so much as hopelessness, but as helplessness, the by-product of hearing a friend say “we’re all gonna die anyway”and fixating on that moment at the funeral, or watching the ambulance cart your roommate off after he overdoses on pills.  It’s the frantic feeling of wanting to help, but not knowing how to make the situation better. “Never be afraid / To talk to me / Never be afraid / To say I need you,” Rutledge pleads quietly on Talk, but soon he too needs saving. As the song transitions to Waltz in 4/4 he finds himself in the midst of self-destruction: “You either go out fighting / Or you go quiet in the night / Not at all like it should be / Not everyone survives.”

The lyrics are the clear focal point on Parental Guidance, asking hard questions in hard situations through well-crafted line after well-crafted line. Perhaps the most probing stanza of all comes partway through The Optimistwhere Rutledge tries to make sense of the phrase “God has a plan”: “Mad Scientist of the cosmos: / ‘Have you met my finest specimen Job?’ / ‘he ran the maze in record time’ / But what about his wife and kids? / Go on about your pottery / Why did you orchestrate all this / At the expense of their eternity?” He closes the song with bewilderment, “I was supposed to be the careless one / Not you.” Every painful moment is laid out in detail; raw, emotional, and afraid.

Parental Guidance is Ok O’Clock’s most complete work to date, a well-thought out record complete with recurring musical motifs, found sound interludes, and a full narrative arc. For fans displaced after Sorority Noise’s recent fall from grace, or anyone looking for a potent and relatable emo album with its sights set much higher than highschool relationship drama, this should prove a worthwhile listen. You can check it out below and follow our DIY Deep Dive playlist on Spotify to hear selections from this and other DIY Deep Dive albums any time.

Fall In Love With Quiet: Or “Why You Keep Clicking Lofi Hip Hop Beats To Study/Relax Too”

“There is a rhythm to life. You got this… ride the wave.” – Some Random Guy In the Lo-Fi Hip Hop Radio Live Chat

Something that I think gets overlooked too often on music blogs much like the one you’re reading right now is “vibe” music. Music that sets out to set a mood, and should it choose to tell a story, it does so in a subtle, usually instrumental way. I think there’s a huge place in our everyday lives for this music.

Luckily for us capitalist underlings, a large corporation also had this thought back in the 40s. Muzak, a term that would become an insult rather than a copyrighted moniker, was a company that found their niche in creating music that would boost the productivity of the average american worker, and encourage store consumers to spend more.

Muzak could apparently make workers happier and more productive. Muzak patented a system called Stimulus Progression that offered 15-minute blocks of instrumental background music that provided listeners with a subconscious sense of forward movement.” (MentalFloss.com)

For better or for worse, this science proved to be questionable at best, but the concept that music can soothe the mind, or focus you on a task is still strongly supported. According to the UMD Medical center, it’s actually good for the heart. “Listen to music. Music is an effective stress reducer in both healthy individuals and people with health problems. Research finds that listening to soothing music can decrease blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety levels in heart patients” (Florida National University). So the science is there, but you already knew the effects that calming music had on you when you’re trying to focus. It acts as a buffer, a conduit for thought; provides framework but not enough stimulus to distract you or “take you out of it”. It’s the 21st century version of listening to the rain at night; which is, unsurprisingly, a common sound sample in this genre.

There’s something magic about certain tempos, certain grooves, and certain instrumental tones that calm us. The sounds are soft but defined, dark but not foreboding. They feel like a cold summer night, the kind of night that conjures memories of fire-lit evenings and hoodies. There’s a specific feeling that follows putting on nice headphones, or putting this type of music on in the car at night that feels warm, safe, and inviting.

This feeling, I will dare to say, is peace. So much of our days are spent with a checklist in one hand and a heavily caffeinated beverage the other. A paper, some homework, a test, a last minute Not A Sound post because the Head Editor is sick, or just the stresses of feeling the need to move forward every day as quickly as you can. “Chill” music offers you a brief, but welcomed respite from these feelings through nothing more than a few un-quantized kick drums and a warm piano sound.

So go ahead, boot up some of those lo-fi/jazz/chill playlists, because now more than ever, it feels like we as a generation need something that not only encourages stillness, but romanticizes it.



I’ve included the link to the now infamous “lofi hip hop” radio, and my personal favorite I found while listening to it during my writing tonight, so enjoy!

“There is a rhythm to life. You got this… ride the wave.” – Some Random Guy In the Lo-Fi Hip Hop Radio Live Chat

http://mentalfloss.com/article/28274/muzak-history-background-story-background-music

https://www.fnu.edu/benefits-studying-music/

Review: “Phoenix” by Pedro The Lion

“Phoenix” successfully places the listener into the world of Pedro The Lion, memorializing a past with an urgency to be remembered.

FFO: Jeremy Enigk, Mineral, 90’s Alt. Rock

“But I remember what it was like / astride my yellow bike / first freedom, second life / all the places I could ride / Leaving early, packing light / that little ache inside / my kingdom for someone to ride with.” 

I knew very little about Pedro The Lion when I first heard these lines over the weekend.  My only experience with the late 90’s legend was a casual listen of 2004’s Achilles Heel, which I listened to with a good friend who loves the band.  My interest was piqued enough that when I discovered that indie-rock mastermind David Bazan was releasing his first album in fifteen years under the his old moniker “Pedro The Lion” (he has released under his own name since then), I decided to give Phoenix a listen with very little context for the projects’ long life span.

Jumping in on a new album from an artist decades into their career can feel like a daunting venture, but as it turns out, the album requires little-to-no context to enjoy.  I was instantly hooked on the first full song, “Yellow Bike.”  Everything about it instantly felt nostalgic to me . . . the guitar chords, thudding drums, Bazan’s worn, passionate voice that somehow calls to mind the bluesy tones of Randy Newman.  Through the image of his childhood bike, Bazan beautifully and simply ties his six-year-old self to his present day, forty-three-year-old self; it is an ode to freedom, and a yearning for companionship and belonging within it.  The closing chorus subtly changes the last line from “my kingdom for someone to ride with,” to “I’d trade my kingdom for someone to ride with,” exemplifying masterful songwriting, showing how the simple addition of two words can powerfully change the direction and meaning of a song. 

The album continues this reflective thread on later tracks, painting vivid images of childhood and connecting them firmly to the present moment.  In the song “Model Homes,” Bazan turns memories of house shopping with his parents to the adult longing for change, “Tired of where we live / hoping that it’s not if, but when / when will the wait be over?”  This motif is accomplished perhaps most memorably on “Circle K,” where Bazan reminisces on childhood overspending at the convenience store as if it were a prophesy, with a simplicity that denies heavy-handedness, “I spent it all at Circle K / and the good Lord smiled and looked the other way.” 

Sonically, Phoenix is a pretty standard rock album, which suits the ballad-like story telling very well.  On “Black Canyon,” the haunting tale of a man’s gruesome death under an eighteen-wheeler is punctuated by dissonant guitar chords as pounding toms underline the track, while the chorus jumps out like a stadium rock song.  The album’s big guitars and gritty bass could be played in massive arenas or small rock clubs; it does not sound underground, but not so produced that it feels phony. 

For as strong as the highlights are, there are some duller moments that don’t stick out as readily, making the album feel slightly uneven.  Songs like “All Seeing Eye” towards the end of the record (while brief) drags on a bit, as does the repetition of the simplistic chorus in “My Phoenix.”  They are not bad songs, but compared to the richness of the others, play out as obvious weaker-links. 

 The title Phoenix carries not only the mythical imagery of rebirth but also the name of the city where Bazan grew up.  This feels appropriate in both senses, as it seems to signify a new era in Bazan’s career that is firmly rooted in memories of the past with time-worn songwriting that pulls the two together quite well.  It successfully places the listener into the world of Pedro The Lion, memorializing a past with an urgency to be remembered.

“We could write me some reminders, I’d memorize them / I could sing them to myself and whoever’s listening / I could put them on a record about my hometown / sitting here with pen and paper, I’m listening now.” – “Quietest Friend”

Rating: 7.7 (Stand Out)

For info on how we rate albums, see our rating scale.

Release Date: Jan 18, 2019

Label: Polyvinyl Records

Review: “Princess Diana” by The Mañana People

“Princess Diana, the debut full-length from German freak-folk/psyche-country duo The Mañana People is the kind of album that almost seems tailor-made for a quirky coming of age indie-movie.”

FFO: Space-Westerns, Olde-Timey, Freak Folk

In the early 2010s there was a string of movies where the protagonist somehow ends up involved with an eccentric indie band. Jim Carrey fell in love with the singer of an avant-garde noise pop band in Yes Man, Michael Fassbender wore a giant papier-mâché head and fronted a psychedelic rock band in Frank, and of course Ellen Page and Michael Cera formed their own quirky folk duo in the smash hit Juno, which briefly popularized bubbly, cutesy folk with its accompanying soundtrack. It was such a popular trend for those few years that it almost became its own subgenre and launched specifically Michael Cera and Zooey Deschanel into the spotlight. 

While these movies put a ton of underground artists in the spotlight for a brief moment, there was a certain sense that the viewer was supposed to see these kinds of music as weird, perhaps endearingly so, but still other to them. Where the obscure musician stereotype wasn’t fetishized (like in Scott Pilgrim V.S. the World) it was often played as a sort of joke. Fortunately for the actual artists in these obscure corners of music, these movies had an unintended side effect: a bunch of kids who never would have known these genres existed genuinely fell in love with the new musical world now in front of them. I was one such kid. 

Princess Diana, the debut full-length from German freak-folk/psyche-country duo The Mañana Peopleis the kind of album that almost seems tailor-made for a quirky coming of age indie-movie. Their blend of lo-fi country, harmonies that fall somewhere between The Beach Boysand The Eagles, and inventive sci-fi storytelling plant them firmly in a niche all their own. Top that off with the occasional whirligig synth line, a few timely handclaps, and the always-essential theremin solo, and you have the recipe for an immediate cult classic and/or the soundtrack to the next popular Sundance film. It’s infectious fun from the very first song, practically oozing with good-natured joy. 

The Mañana People draw from quite a variety of host material to create their unique brand of entertainment. What is particularly impressive is the way they contour their harmonies to further distinguish each song. On Matchstick Manthey resemble The Beach Boys, while on Anthrophagus they sound more like 70s Southern rockers The Outlaws, and on People Who Don’t Know They’re Deadthey once again reimagine themselves as a barbershop quartet. Musically The Mañana People are equally prone to experiment, usually leaning on old-timey country guitars, but occasionally dipping into Frankenstein organs, surf guitars, lo-fi electronic drums, and old-English balladry, doing each separate style justice and maintaining their indie-pop chops throughout. 

The lyrics more often than not tell tales of zombies, murder mysteries, and traveler’s woes, calling to mind the classic monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Though hoaky at points, both writers consistently display a talent for penning gripping lines that jump beyond their narrative context. Perhaps the best example of this comes on the chorus of the penultimate track It’s Harder to Try, a old-timey country tune akin to The Carter Family“May the road rise to greet you / May the songs fill your head / May your house be safe from tigers / May your youth be well-spent / It’s so hard to be kind / But it’s harder to try.” While their particular brand of lyricism certainly isn’t for everyone, it is unusually captivating for what it is. It takes a rare songwriter to get a listener invested in a song about zombie battles, but The Mañana Peoplepull it off more times than not.

While Princess Diana is a very unique album and generally quite engaging, it can feel a bit disjointed at times. The album’s composition is a little inconsistent, with the track order sometimes seeming very thought out and at other times haphazard. It sits in that awkward, uncanny valley between albums that were designed to be cohesive and albums that were really just a collection of songs, not really committing to either side. This makes listening to Princess Diana as a unit an uneven experience, despite each song for the most part standing on its own merits. Despite this, however, it is still quite a fun and enjoyable collection of tunes.

All in all the debut LP from The Mañana People makes for an intriguing listen, so unique as to peak your interest and yet with enough familiar ground to keep your attention focused. Fans of freak-folk and psyche-country will find plenty to enjoy here, but Princess Diana is such an endearing album that it also merits a listen from any outsider who might be curious. While it may be fairly obscure as an art-form it is also so laden with catchy hooks and infectious, quasi-space-western energy that most anybody can find something to enjoy.  

7.3/10 (Stand-Out)

For more information on how we score albums see Our Rating Scale.

Label: Unique Records
Release Date: January 18, 2019

Review: “Heard It In A Past Life” by Maggie Rogers

The record is teaming with life and joy in terms of the richness of its lyricism and musicianship.

FFO: HAIM, boygenius, Stevie Nicks, “After Laughter-Era” Paramore.

Singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers has a modern version of a classic success story.  She did not grow up in a particularly musical family, but at age seven began taking harp lessons, and as her love of music grew, she expanded her instrumental pallet to include guitar and piano.  During high school, she attended a Berklee College of Music summer program and won their songwriting contest, spurring her to continue to focus in that area. 

Eventually she found her way into New York University’s prestigious Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, where she recorded and self-released a folk album in the vein of early Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens.  During this time, she studied abroad in France where she started listening to house and dance music, and after experiencing an extended spell of writer’s block, began creating new music that combined her folk melodies and lyricism with the backbone of the dance genres she fell in love with in France. 

Her real success came in the form of a viral video.  The legendary Pharrell Williams, an in-house musician at N.Y.U. at the time, visited a music production class that Rogers was enrolled in to critique the students’ work.  In the video, a visibly moved Pharrell tells Rogers that her song “Alaska” is basically perfect, saying “I’ve never heard anyone like you before.”  Coming from one of the most influential pop/hip-hop producers of the past two decades, this was about the best endorsement she could get, which launched a massive major label bidding war.  Now, nearly two years later, her debut full-length has arrived via Capitol Records. 

This context is necessary because it takes up a fair amount of the subject matter of the album.  In many ways, Heard It In A Past Life is the story of an introvert suddenly thrust into the spotlight.  One of the album’s lead singles, the folk-pop “Light On,” deals with this head-on in the first verse, “Oh I couldn’t stop it, tried to slow it all down / crying in the bathroom, had to figure it out / with everyone around me saying, ‘you must be so happy now.’”  It’s not angry or whiny, but a genuine expression of confusing emotions; her story is one that many dream of and strive for, but is terrifying when actually experienced. 

But the record does not wallow too long in this specific space; It is teaming with life and joy in terms of the richness of its lyricism and musicianship.  The Pharrell-approved “Alaska,” exemplifies the instrumental Rogers’ instrumental depth.  The beat is intricate and layered, with subtle syncopated synths adding a bass-layer of melody as Rogers’ voice floats overtop, “I was walking through icy streams that took my breath away / moving slowly through westward water / over glacial plains.”  The imagery shows her deep-connection with the natural world, which makes her stand out in the context of most pop musicians.  Elsewhere, she uses samples from nature that she collected on hikes; “Overnight,” sounds like it samples a bird call as a percussion instrument.  It’s fresh and creative while still being accessible to pretty much everyone. 

Despite the danceable beats and sugary hooks, Rogers remains first and foremost a songwriter throughout the album, with her lyrics as a central focus on the record.  Back-half highlight “Retrograde” features one of the album’s most passionate vocal performances, in which she belts the chorus, “Oh here I am, settled in on your floor / quieting all the world outside your door / and I am reckoning.”  It is authentic, passionate lyricism rarely found in much of today’s pop music. 

Ever since Lorde’s debut Pure Heroine in 2014, much of the pop landscape has been defined by cool detachment and cynicism, or simply over sexualization of the star.  Maggie Rogers requires neither of those things to be successful.  The way in which she throws herself into her music with such genuine love and passion is refreshing because it relies not on cultivating a pop image, but just in being her and sharing music that she is passionate about creating.  Rogers is clearly making music that she loves, and it is a joy to be able to breath it in with her. 

What holds the album back from being great is the major label-ness of it.  This is not to say that top-tear production is bad; I myself am a big fan of pop music, and high-end production is not a strike in my book.  But, there are moments when the album lacks a certain edge, when the crispness of the drums and guitars are a bit too crisp, and it feels a bit wrong.  It’s not inauthentic, but it holds some moments back from being as cutting as they could be. 

That said, the record remains a breath of fresh air for fans of pop and folk alike.  It is one of the only folk-pop records that I have genuinely enjoyed, because it’s not soft and dumbed down, but is a creative testament to what can happen when an artist takes genuine inspiration from the two seemingly opposed genres.  More than anything, it establishes Maggie Rogers as an artist to follow in the coming decade. 

Rating: 7.8 (Stand Out)

For info on how we score albums see our rating scale.

Release Date: Jan 18, 2019

Label: Capitol Records

Review: “nice!” by kinda alright

Where so many progressive bands create stone-faced, mechanical spectacles, “kinda alright” choose instead to make music that’s downright fun.

FFO: Chon, Polyphia, Free Throw

Guitar music might not hold the same position of prestige in American culture as it once did, but it is far from dead. In sweaty bars and suburban basements across the country there is a thriving community of artists and fans still devoted to distortion and pushing the boundaries of their instruments. One place where this culture is particularly alive and well is Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; a haven for punk, posthardcore, shoegaze, and all other forms of alternative. Known for producing such bands as mewithoutYouThe Wonder Years, and Modern Baseball, the “City of Brotherly Love” has developed a knack for spawning cult classic bands in niche genres. 

Math rock, with its emphasis on musical virtuosity and complexity, is a subgenre that is particularly popular in Philly, so much so that the city has developed its own distinct flavor of the genre. Where a lot of math rock is inspired by bands like This Town Needs Guns or borrows heavily from twinkly Midwest Emo, in Philly there is a tendency to combine the more technical parts of math rock with pop punk grooves, heavier overdrive, and an unusual reverence for Built to Spill. On their newest EP, nice!kinda alrightexemplify this distinct cultural trend and employ it to great effect.

Nice! is fifteen minutes of immediately satisfying guitar shredding and feel good grooves. Where so many progressive bands create stone-faced, mechanical spectacles, kinda alright choose instead to make music that’s downright fun. You can tell that each member is incredibly proficient at their instrument, because they make a point to show you as often as they can, but there is no overarching air of superiority. They may take their playing seriously, but they clearly don’t take themselves too seriously; a refreshing change of pace for technical bands. 

Stylistically kinda alright is comparable to Chon, had the latter gotten their start in pop punk instead of jazz guitar. Each track is energetic and rhythmically bouncy, none more-so than early stand-out track no chumpswith its ear-catching stop-and-start natural harmonic riffs. All of the songs except the closer algerbong copweeddealerare instrumental, but they have enough dynamic movement and guitar hooks to remain engaging even without vocals. The few lyrics that did make it on the album are pretty standard emo fare, but they do exactly what they need to do: provide a catchy and relatable melodic hook in between the riffs, which still serve as the focal point of the song.

As far as math rock goes, nice! is a pretty solid EP. Fans of this niche genre and its musical neighbors will find a lot to be excited about on the Philly three-piece’s newest release. It may not be the most groundbreaking thing to come out this month, but it also isn’t trying to be. Above all nice! is just a record made by a couple talented guys trying to have fun by making cool shit, and in that regard it is a wild success.

6.3/10 (Solid)

For more information on how we score records, see: https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/

Released: Jan 10, 2019
Record Label: Independent