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


Review: “Tallies” (Self-Titled)

Toronto band Tallies debut self-titled record manages to create a captivating blend of jangly shoegaze and indie pop.
FFO: The Innocence Mission, Slowdive

With the 2020’s fast approaching, 1990’s nostalgia is more common than ever.  Today’s youth (and some younger adults) were born after 2000.  To them, 90’s seems as distant as the 80’s did to those of us who were born in the 90’s. With the inevitable romanticizing of the era, many music acts have cropped up looking to capitalize on this, some doing it successfully, others not so much.  Toronto band Tallies debut self-titled record manages to do the former, successfully creating a captivating blend of jangly shoegaze and indie pop.  It is a sound that would not be out of place on college radio in 1992, but still manages to escape falling into the throwback category by capitalizing on their youthful energy. 

A big contributor to this is the voice and energy of frontwoman, Sarah Cogan.  Although her voice is set in a different context, it brings to mind the vocal style of dream-pop band The Innocence Mission, Karen Peris.  Her voice has a child-like, almost otherworldly quality that brings a dreamy quality to the record.  Instrumentally, this record could be compared to many shoegaze bands of the golden-era.  In particular, some of the bass lines are reminiscent of Slowdive, and while the instrumentation is not necessarily as dense, it has plenty of pop to it to keep the listener interested the whole time. 

I found the back-half of the record to be particularly strong.  The song “Beat The Heart” on the second half has one of my favorite hooks, as Cogan sings over a driving beat, “Oh we’re ticking down, ticking down the days / It’s longer than missing, longer than hoping / beat the heart, beat it, we’re beating.”  The vague, almost impressionistic quality of the lyrics fits well with ambient soundscape.  Elsewhere on the track, Corgan evokes an almost cosmic quality, “the voice that makes us move / glides amongst our melting shoes / we’re illuminated / spaced out, feel the difference / Earth set from the moon / we’re floating.”  It places the listener in the stratosphere in a sort of ecstasy in a masterful way that the genre is known for achieving. 

This record establishes Tallies as a band to watch out for in the coming years, especially as the soundscape of rock music begins to shift again in the coming decade.  It’s an impressive debut in terms of its consistency and lack of filler, as well as pop sensibility.  It’s possible that they may be seen as a leader if this sound catches on and begins to take fire (even more than it already has) in the indie scene. 

Score: 7.1 (Stand Out)

For info on how we score albums see https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/

Label: Kanine Records

Release Date: 1/11/2019

Review: “Change of Scenery” by Buddie

“Change of Scenery” is as fun as it is earnest, a raucous album intent on engaging the world rather than escaping it, a thoroughly enjoyable musical paradox.”

FFO Weezer, Pavement, Built to Spill

“How can I live with myself not helping anyone else?” As the flurry of distorted guitars reach their blaring crescendo on opening track Sloth,vocalist Dan Forrest of Philadelphia alternative outfit Buddiesets the tone with just one line. Once a conservation biologist in Equatorial Guinea, Forrest now spends his time writing fuzz rock in the vein of Pavement and early Weezer, though where his forebears made their careers writing about unrequited love, on Change of Scenery Forrest instead writes songs that are much more uniquely conscious. They may still be dorky, but only in the sense that anything passionate that isn’t drenched in cynicism isn’t patently “cool” in 2019. 

Second track and early stand-out Sinktouches on exactly that: “Wear my heart on my sleeve / But it’s not cool to be naïve / And now I look a fool / While everyone else tries to be called cool.”It’s a shockingly vulnerable lyric for a song that eventually builds into an infectious power-pop hook centered on the lyric, “Oh no, I’m feeling like I’m Michael Cera.” But that is precisely the magic and strength of Forrest’s songwriting; he writes songs that deal with big-picture problems in a tone that is strikingly modest and good-natured. Though his background gives him plenty of room to preach, he never patronizes the listener. Even his most confrontational lines come out more earnest than angry, because at the heart of these songs there is more carethan there is angst. That posturing sets Buddiein a corner all their own in the world of fuzz rock, a genre usually reserved for the slacker, the stoner, and the lackadaisical character motifs.

Nowhere is this difference more apparent than in the anthemic closer Privileged Youthwhere Forrest grapples with his position of advantage as a white American, capping it off with the pseudo-psychedelic bridge: “The institutions are racist / The institutions are bigots / The institutions are fascists / And I reap the rewards / And they keep the poor poor.” Lyrically it’s more akin to early Anti-Flagthan Weezer, but even here at his most direct and unapologetic Forrest chooses to appeal to humanity first and foremost, concluding his thought with one last run of the chorus: “…It’s the same road everyone’s walking / There’s no traffic from here / I know you’re working, everyone’s working / But can’t you see we have the upper-hand? …” It’s a breath of fresh air from a perspective not often found in fuzz rock or even alternative as a whole.

Change of Scenery is much more than a rare endearing, political album, however. Beyond it’s thoughtful lyrics, its true strength is that it’s also just a kickass rock record. There are enough cathartic choruses, huge chords, and tasteful tempo changes to keep casual and critical listeners alike engaged and satisfied from start to finish. It’s proof that you don’t have to play it cool and put on a sullen demeanor to make impactful art. On Change of Scenery, Buddienever miss a second of fun while making their point; it’s the kind of album equally as conducive to guitar flips as it is to inspiring contemplation. 

If there is one weak spot on the EP, it would probably be the middle track Selva,which has the misfortune of falling between two of the hookiest songs on the album Sink and Anxty. It’s not a bad song by any means, an internal monologue about leaving the Equatorial rain forest after experiencing so much personal growth there and then trying to re-adjust to life in America, but it is the lone song that doesn’t reward the listener with an immediate earworm of a hook. Considering that’s the worst thing I can say about this EP, it’s pretty fair to say that Buddie nailed their debut.

All in all the new EP from Buddie is a clear stand-out within its genre, a fresh voice and perspective from a talented new songwriter with a dynamic musical core as his vehicle. Change of Scenery is as fun as it is earnest, a raucous album intent on engaging the world rather than escaping it, a thoroughly enjoyable musical paradox. We can’t wait to see what this promising young band does next.

7.8/10 (Stand-Out)

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

Review: “Tomb” by Angelo De Augustine

Tomb leaves the listener feeling refreshed in the way one feels after a good, healthy cry.

          When someone experiences a significant breakup or loss of a romantic partner, there is usually a rush of conflicting feelings.  Sometimes they manifest in betrayal and anger.  Sometimes there is only shock and an inability to process the event.  But more often than not, the most overwhelming feeling is one of deep mourning over the fact that something that was once good and beautiful is now gone.  The mind spins trying to make sense of everything; relishing memories, attempting to sort out how we got from there to here.  On the title track and album opener of Angelo De Augustine’s excellent Tomb, he captures this initial feeling perfectly, at once evoking remembrances of a beautiful relationship, wondering how it is now gone, “I walked into your life at the wrong time / never quite been perceptive of real life / it was not your fault or a fault of mine / but it’s hard to let you go this time.”  It is more than mourning; it is a search for justification, a deep and resounding “why?” 

            Part of what makes these lyrics so powerful is the instrumentation.  In a soft falsetto comparable to Sufjan Stevens (his label-mate and owner), Augustine’s double-tracked vocals hover over soft guitar plucking, with subtle piano underlying the second half of the track.  The result is melancholy, melodic, and incredibly captivating.  However, this is not your run-of-the-mill indie-folk record.  The following track “All to the Wind” calls to mind a McCartney-penned Beatles track, with snappy piano-pop chords and subtle guitar parts providing more layers.  “I Could Be Wrong,” sounds like something from the Postal Service or Sufjan’s Age of Adz, with a simplistic electronic beat and minimalistic synth textures.  This album is no sleeper; at no point does the instrumentation feel mundane. 

            What makes this album stand out is the way it intersects beauty and pain.  The record was written in 2017 in five days – December 20th-25th.  The feeling that it evokes is similar to what many feel around the holidays.  For a lot of folks it is a time of reflection and reckoning with one’s place in life within the context of somber beauty.  The chorus of a stand-out track, “You Needed Love, I Needed You,” captures this reflective mood, “Life’s been hard and you’ve lived a few / did I give too much love to you? / I’m sorry but it’s what I had to do / you needed love and I needed you.”  It’s heartbreaking in that it recognizes the situation, but does not desecrate the beauty that once existed in the relationship. 

            This song also exemplifies effective songwriting in its use of images that are specific enough to give the listener a clear picture, but also general enough that most people can relate to them without being generic.  “Back in my hometown looking for a silver Honda / but there’s too many all around / and I fear I’ll never find you / so I walk around.”  Everyone in the civilized world knows what a silver Honda looks like, yet it’s a specific enough image that it feels real, allowing the listener to attach their own associations to it and cry right along with Angelo. 

            While much of this album deals with heartbreak, it also goes beyond it.  That is to say, the breakup is not isolated; it is contextualized in the songwriter’s world.  Hushed acoustic track “Kaitlin” invokes memories of family, “Mother left you in the night / my father faded into the same light / now we’re both hoping to find someone.”  The record has wide vision and it immerses the listener deeply into its world. 

            Tomb leaves you feeling refreshed in the way one feels after a good, healthy cry.  It’s not panicky or hopeless, but an honest attempt to reckon with loss that is just as normal and human as it is to weep for things worth weeping over.  It is appropriately named, as it is a monument to something that was at one time good and beautiful that deserves to be remembered in the minds of the artist and listener alike. 

Score: 8.8 (Best New Music)

For info on how we score album see https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/