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: Never Not Together by Nada Surf

FFO: Superchunk, Teenage Fanclub, The Rentals

Compared to other 1990s one-hit wonders, Nada Surf’s career trajectory has been an interesting one. They came in big in the summer of 1996 with their Ric Ocasek-produced MTV hit “Popular,” an acerbic song with a big chorus that found the New York City trio (now a four-piece) raking in a good bit of money for their major-label, Elektra. The song’s success was ultimately at the expense of their sophomore album, 1998’s The Proximity Effect, which, despite having enough palatable Replacements-lite power-pop cuts in hindsight, did not contain a track that scratched Elektra’s itch for another college radio hit. The label’s nixing of the band opened the door for a few years of day jobs and, eventually, Barsuk Records, home to indie up-and-comers like Death Cab For Cutie and Rilo Kiley. Starting with 2002’s exceptional Let Go, things have been fairly consistent for the band. Their sound developed in a direction away from the caustic, feedback-drunk irony that was the calling-card of 1990s rock into sincere, lush, jangly pop music, a sound which they have more or less stuck with since.

In that regard, their latest album Never Not Together is not entirely different from anything they’ve released in the past 15 years; it is not a massive stylistic jump or sonic experiment, nor a defining opus from a band that has been at it for 25 years. Certain lyrical adjustments aside, it could have been released in the place of Let Go and fit in quite nicely in the milieu of 2002. Nada Surf’s gift has never laid in sonic excursions, but in tightening their craft as songwriters, performers of rich power-pop that matures with the band and their audience. Never Not Together triumphs in that area in spades, giving us an album that is somehow both their most compact and their most full-bodied collection of songs in a good while.

The opening track, and first single, “So Much Love,” fades in with pretty acoustic guitars and a sprinkle of piano; this sweet, delicate pop rock track is somewhat par for the course for Nada Surf at this point, and begins the album nicely with a safe air of familiarity before taking off with “Come Get Me,” a good dash of floaty jangle pop a la Jayhawks, interspersed with lines of moog synth that plays like something from Summerteeth-era Wilco. “Just Wait” finds its infectiousness in a more straightforward, hooky fashion, almost fitted perfectly for radio with its four-chord opening over swelling keyboard and strings. Despite being the most simple, straightforward track on the album, “Just Wait” also feels like the turning point on the album, as the tracks that fill the second half are filled with a wider variance in arrangement and style. “Something I Should Do” is an upbeat rocker that employs spoken word in a way that might be enough to hook those who are looking for another “Popular”; what’s missing is the caustic tone, as Matthew Caws says “And we have to hold onto that hippie point harder/Empathy is good, lack of empathy is bad,” going for the post-Elektra sincerity he has taken to. “Looking For You” opens with a children’s choir that seems to be singing about insomnia before working itself towards a fantastic build with the hopeful message that “what you’re looking for’s looking for you, too.”

The strongest moment on the album comes with “Mathilda”, a 6 minute track that is almost broken down in 3 different suites. “They used to call me Mathilda,” Caws sings over a simple folksy melody. “My mama kept my hair long. I was more pretty than handsome, and I was not very strong.” This exploration of self-hatred learned from societal standards forays from reverb-washed arpeggio to overdriven power chords before settling into a Paul Simonesque folk-pop outro movement. “There’s a special hell that we build for ourselves, and it’s handed down in homes and playgrounds,” he sings. Within most of the lyricism lies this desire to love others, a sort of humanistic vision of neighbourliness. Nada Surf have always taken a more direct approach to lyricism whether that be in the overt sarcasm of “Popular,” the vitriolic damnation of toxic masculinity in “Mothers Day,” or the wistful longing of “Inside Of Love.” Caws and company channel this more towards sharing wisdom, altruism and acceptance in these woefully, absurdly divisive times. People looking for more extended metaphors, witty wordplay or crypticism may want to wait for the next Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks album. Otherwise, the marriage of honesty and innocence is refreshing in its own way.

Seeing Nada Surf in concert these days, you’ll never see them wince when they play “Popular” the way Radiohead might when dusting off “Creep”. There is no desire from the band to divorce themselves from their novice work. But while other 90s one-hit wonders may also attempt to recreate their biggest hits, Nada Surf continues to strive to mature; not through sweeping experiments, but through small steps towards crafting perfect songs. Never Not Together has the feeling of meeting up with an old friend over coffee. There is always that familiarity that doesn’t preclude the growth from being noticed. And in a world that seems to get noisier as time goes on, that might be the kind of detoxing we’ve been looking for.

7.6 (Stand-Out)

Released: February 7, 2020

Label: Barsuk Records

Review: Slow Down, Rockstar by Fallow Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Rating: 8.5 (Best New Music)

Review: Lay My Head Down by Broken Field Runner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Rating: 7.0 (Stand Out)

Review: 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)

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.