It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, so I decided to compile my thoughts on all the new music that I’ve listened to this year.
I am a passionate person. I find it therapeutic to write down my feelings about works of art that really excite me. This process puts my thoughts in order, at least for a moment. It also forces me to put forth at least a basic effort into understanding where each artist is coming from and what they are trying to say.
Take these as both recommendations and reviews. I’d love it if anyone checked out some of the lesser-known acts after seeing them here. I’d be interested in hearing what other people have enjoyed, too. Yes, I know that 2015 is only 1/3 of the way through. Maybe my thoughts on these records will change drastically by year’s end. But a year is an arbitrary unit for evaluating music anyway. This post is about how I feel now.
I listen to a lot of music. Last year, I made a deliberate choice to look backwards rather than forwards. I didn’t “keep up” but instead tried to explore older artists. This year, I’m making more of an effort.
In the process of compiling this list, I realized that I haven’t heard any new metal music yet. Oh well. You’ll find rock, electronic, hip-hop, indie, grunge, pop, ambient, R&B and a lot of post-punk. Hopefully you’ll find an artist or album you didn’t know about before but end up checking out and enjoying.
My picks for the best album so far this year:
1. Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp a Butterfly
To Pimp a Butterfly raises far more questions than it tries to answer, and the only thing about it that pretty much everyone can agree about is that it’s 2015’s leading AOTY contender. Kendrick Lamar released such an overwhelmingly complex and intricate collection of relevant and melodically shape-shifting songs that the pure awe it elicited may have shielded it from a second wave of criticism I picture on the horizon, mostly because Lamar is too brave (or foolhardy) to let anyone off the hook. Lamar presents himself as the spokesman of the times only to subject himself – and what he purports to represent – to intense interrogation. Lamar acknowledges the flaws of his egotism in mirror-images “i” and “u” but celebrates all the same; the blatant messaging in line with the Black Lives Matter movement is countered by “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gang banging make me kill a n** blacker than me? Hypocrite!” in “The Blacker the Berry”; elsewhere “Shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass”. Whether or not Lamar’s comments become construed as victim-blaming will likely determine its long-term relevance; for now, the 12 minutes of “Mortal Man” carry more urgency than any other album on this list.
2. Lower Dens
Escape from Evil
The Baltimore-based indie rockers expand from their greyish abstractions to a more welcoming pop sound, and the results are marvelous. Vocalist Jana Hunter, an avid critic of Spotify, pirating and musical mass consumption (who had a major influence on a post I made on the subject in 2013), delivers another sensational performance. The rest of the band melds the shady moods and sauntering electronics from Nootropics and the self-titled debut with catchy melodies and drum beats. Every track is its own highlight. Opener “Sucker’s Shangri-La” finds Hunter realizing that a relationship is not all she’d hoped (“This is not what you’ve been waiting for/They fooled you” “It doesn’t help that he can see you coming/And he knows how to break you like an animal”). A conflicted yearning for love underlines “Your Heart is Still Beating” (“Your heart is still beating in all of my dreams/And I swore again and again/Never again/Never again”), and a sexual undercurrent runs though show-stopper “Non Grata”. To Pimp a Butterfly may have more to say about the present moment, but Escape from Evil creates a lush, cinematic scope that I see myself returning to for years to come.
“To Die In L.A.”:
3. The Soft Moon
Post-punk, darkwave, electronic
Luis Vasques’s latest installment in his post-punk/electronic project lives up to its title by delving beyond the lurid late night atmospheres explored in his first records. This approach makes Deeper a draining listen that digs into your subconscious. Vasquez’s lyrics – which oscillate from lazy goth-kid poetry to effectively conjuring up hazy abstractions and images of existential meditation – all point to heated introspection, with their cold melodic structures as the only beacon of light fading into the distance. Stunning closer “Being” sounds like the rocky bottom of the narrator’s disorienting descent, with narrator murmuring (and then screaming) “I can’t see my face/I don’t know where I am” in a chilling conclusion. The electronic beats and echoing ambience demand that the music be played at a high volume. The Soft Moon sounds like a refined version of Clan of Xymox, and the album is a must-have for any post-punk fanatic.
Genre: Post-punk, darkwave, electronic
“Far” (not for the epileptic):
4. Viet Cong
Post-punk, noise rock
The mess that is Viet Cong’s history more-or-less starts with the all-male band Women, which disintegrated after an on-stage fight between its members and (unrelatedly) the 2012 death of vocalist/guitarist Christopher Reimer. Two of its remaining members joined with two new guitarists to come up with an even worse band name, which they’ve already kind of apologized for after the cancellation of a show at Oberlin after the venue’s promoter called it “a name that deeply offends and hurts Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American communities.” (This is a whole other conversation, but the issue isn’t so much that the band name is offensive as it is that the band members have publicly admitted to putting no thought or effort into its selection.) Controversy aside, Viet Cong’s self-titled album is a masterwork of harsh noise rock – it’s ranks up with Turn on the Bright Lights, Boxer, and Silence Yourself as one of the strongest and most immediate post-punk albums of the new millennium. The interlocking chords the kick off “Bunker Buster” and show-stopper “Death” make order out of layered fuzz and noise and create the feeling of witnessing a band pulling off a spellbinding late-night encore in a sweaty, crowded venue.
Soundtrack, dark ambient, electronic
I watched It Follows after a random week-long John Carpenter craze during which I repeatedly listened through his (mostly) stellar film soundtracks. It Follows doesn’t just pay tribute to Carpenter’s most accomplished music from Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween III (and Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for The Thing, which Carpenter directed), but, like the movie’s retro-premise, filters their gloom-tinged electronic ambience through current tropes and to create a work relevant to the present moment. “Detroit” lulls uneasily like the dereliction spread over the movie’s backdrop, “Heels” growls horrifically and “Linger” firmly takes the darker side of the movie’s ambiguous ending. Disasterpeace’s score enthralling score (with plenty of help from David Robert Mitchell’s direction and visual finesse) helps separate It Follows from the pack of lesser horror movies (which probably explains its comparatively low box office gross) and cements its legacy as a modern horror classic. When was the last time a movie lived up to a soundtrack this good?
6. Apollo Cobra
The Last EP
The Minneapolis-based band takes a remarkably earnest approach to flashy 70’s electro rock, a style that can easily devolve into self-parody. I first heard of Apollo Cobra after randomly reviewing their second album for WRVU. While much of it was laughable (particularly the track “Shut Up”, which has the refrain “Shut up/I want to make out with you”), it had some terrific melodies and one knock-out track (“This Is”). While only five tracks long, The Last EP is leaps and bounds ahead of Apollo Cobra’s earlier work, synthesizing New Order-ish electronics with sharp hooks and smooth vocals. The production has a less dated feel – it comes across more like Daft Punk’s rediscovery on Random Access Memories than an actual relic from a movement that hasn’t aged particularly well. Apollo Cobra are one of those bands that gets a huge spike in last.fm playcounts whenever I start listening to them, so I’d love it if anyone would take my advice and check out this EP.
“Hold On” (this had 10 views when I first found it, now it has 13):
7. Punch Brothers
The Phosphorescent Blues
Punch Brothers have been so technically brilliant for so long that it’s easy to take them for granted. 2012’s stunning Who’s Feeling Young Now? added abstract shades to their progressive bluegrass, but the odd effect was to create a more accessible and immediately rewarding sound. Phosphorescent Blues takes more work to unlock, but it’s held together by a sense of restraint, lyrical cohesion and intricate timing. Ten minute opener “Familiarity” tastefully incorporates every member of the quintet, and it quickly creates the impression that something is amiss. Chris Thile references phones and technology and makes a desperate cry for deeper human connection (“God knows we need it/God, help us feel it”). The measured crescendo at the end of “Julep” is made all the more powerful by the precision of its buildup. Thile, a dazzling performer, gives possibly his strongest vocal performances throughout the album, never more so than when he lambasts the role of technology in reducing person-to-person communication in single “I Blew it Off”. The lyrical focus and balanced performances by the full band make The Phosphorescent Blues the Punch Brothers’ richest album yet.
“I Blew It Off”:
No Cities to Love
No Cities to Love is 2015’s coolest album (so far), a feat made all the more impressive by the facts that 20 years have passed since Sleater-Kinney first formed and 10 since the release of their previous album. Corin Tucker’s forceful vocals intertwine with jagged guitar riffs and clamoring drums for startling effect with often anthemic results, especially on “Surface Envy” (which celebrates the band’s reunion “Only together do we break the rules”) and the sludgy “New Wave”. There isn’t a slow moment over the album’s trim 32 minute length. Tucker’s lyrics are feminist in the broad sense of exhibiting full autonomy and empowerment (“Gimme Love” sounds less like a hope than a demand). But even as punkish defiance often characterizes the songs, middle age and exhaustion loom in the distance (“Exhume our idols and bury our friends/We’re wild and weary but we won’t give in” “If we are truly dancing our swan song, darling/Shake it like never before”). If No Cities to Love is any indication, though, the Canadian trio have plenty of spark left in them.
Genre: Punk rock
9. Jazmine Sullivan
Sullivan’s return from the “indefinite” hiatus she declared only four years ago finds her remarkably confident even as her persona shifts constantly between songs. The public was clearly ready for her, with Reality Show reaching #2 in US Billboard sales. Opening pair “Dumb” and “Mascara” grab you right away, with Sullivan embodying contrast figures of chiding confidence and restless insecurity with remarkable conviction. Throughout, she delivers vocal performances with gusto and grace, especially on highlight “Forever Don’t Last”. Let’s hope she’s here to stay.
“Forever Don’t Last”:
If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
Drake’s dropped this 17-track mixtape with no warning allegedly to earn release from his contract with Cash Money Records. After the boastful “Legend” (the type of song I really can’t enjoy unless it’s completely ironic, which it isn’t), If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late finds Drake absorbed in annoyance and contempt. Drake’s voice sounds tired and lifeless, and the beats are fittingly murky and subdued. At 17 tracks, the mixtape becomes dreary and draining as Drake complains about superficiality, falsehood and empty romance. He is often his own target, muttering “It’s over, it’s over, yeah, I’m leaving, I’m gone/I’ve been doing this wrong, I’ve been here for too long” on the hypnotic “Now and Forever”. In the most memorable moment, “Preach” fades into a murmuring electronic soundscape that in turn bleeds into the dreamlike “Wednesday Night Interlude”, which provides a brief respite from the bitterness all around it. (Both tracks feature PARTYNEXTDOOR.) The big exception here is “6PM in New York”, an aggressive anthem in which Drake vents his feelings to bring about a satisfying conclusion. There’s nothing here as heartfelt as “Find Your Love” or as catchy as “Over”, but the honest and painful reflections of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late stick with you far longer.
Genre: Hip hop
“Wednesday Night Interlude”:
Carrie and Lowell
Sufjan’s Stevens deeply intimate tribute to his relationships with his mother and father plays like the album the Grammy voters thought they were listening to when they gave Morning Phase the top award last year. It bears resemblance to “Futile Devices” from The Age of Adz, dropping orchestral arrangements for quite acoustic pieces rife with references to Stevens’ Christian identity. He approaches his mother, who was absent during most of his life, from a poignant and vulnerable perspective that acknowledges her flaws while conveying heartfelt admiration and appreciation. Stevens’ applies his own compositional finesse and understated vocals to make every song flow smoothly – Carrie and Lowell is nearly as complex a work as Illinois, even if it doesn’t feel like it at first. It adds a new dimension to Stevens’ already impressive range as a songwriter and performer, confirming him as one of the most talented and impactful musicians of our time.
Audio to “The Only Thing”:
My favorite songs so far this year:
1. “Non Grata” by Lower Dens:
2. “Hold On” by Apollo Cobra:
3. “Bunker Buster” by Viet Cong:
4. “Far” by The Soft Moon:
5. “Winter’s Gone” by Nite Fields
6. “Mortal Man” by Kendrick Lamar
7. “Stranger Still” by Vetiver:
8. “Wednesday Night Interlude” by Drake and PARTYNEXTDOOR
9. “The Ground Walks, with Time In a Box” by Modest Mouse
10. “6PM In New York” by Drake
Thoughts on all of the other albums I’ve heard this year (alphabetical):
Sound & Color
Alabama Shakes sophomore release integrates soul, blues and country with modern rock to create a compelling work that transcends its influences. Sound & Color is the sound of a band is taking ownership of their own identity and defining themselves not in the past but in the present moment. Brittany Howard sings over an impressively wide range within individual songs. The band sounds brisk and confident on rockers “The Greatest”, “Future People” and “Don’t Wanna Fight”. Many of the other tracks are quite odd in perhaps a deliberate effort off expectations. Sound & Color is tons of fun. This band is going places.
“Don’t Wanna Fight”:
A Place to Bury Strangers
Post-punk, noise rock
I first discovered the tediously-named A Place to Bury Strangers through WRVU after spotting a sticky note on a new album that read “Post-Punk”. That album, Worship, introduced me to the deafening noise of the Edge-funded band that also propelled their subtlety-titled debut Exploding Head. Worship struck me as a bit narrow and repetitive, but highlight “Dissolved” pointed in a more versatile and promising direction. Sadly, Transfixation merely treads water, revisiting ground familiar to the band without offering any notion of progress. “Straight” plays like a diluted version of Worship’s many heavy tracks, and it rocks perhaps the hardest of the album. The lyrics, meanwhile, are all vaguely self-absorbed (“I feel right now we’ve come so far”) and not particularly memorable. Anyone who knows my taste in music knows that I’m all for the monotone vocals, corrosive noise and black-coffee aesthetic of Transfixation, but A Place etc. risk fading into oblivion if they keep refusing to explore new territory.
Art rock, avant-pop
Infinite House made for my first foray into the bizarre world of the super artsy Brooklyn group Ava Luna. The music sounds like it can barely containing the clashing quirkiness of all five of its members, and each song seems like the product of an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. There’s a relaxed feel nonetheless, making it easy to view Ava Luna as a messier The Sea and Cake. Carlos Hernandez’s vocals and the sung-spoken lyrics provided by various band members only add to the confusion: “I am a landscape” “Shaped like a cockroach, I smelled good”. This works strangely well, as every moment carries a sense of purpose and direction provided by a prominent bass groove, drum beat, or off-tune guitar. Beginning to end, Infinite House is a triumph of organized chaos. Sometimes, more really is more.
Genre: Art trock, Avant-pop
“Coat of Shellac”:
No Pier Pressure
Way back in 1992, the Beach Boys appeared to be ending their career with the embarrassing Summer of Paradise, possibly the worst album ever released by a classic artist that sold so poorly that it bankrupted the studio that released it. In 2012, though, the aged band reunited for the surprisingly pleasant That’s Why God Made the Radio, which omitted Mike Love rapping in favor of the pretty harmonies and simple structures that always defined the band. The 72-year-old Brian Wilson’s latest solo album is on-par with that spiritual predecessor. Aided quite a bit by Joe Thomas’ production, Wilson’s voice is fairly strong and the album is an enjoyable ride. Beach Boys Al Jardine and David Mark provide some cute harmonies (if glossed by a suspicious amount of auto-tune) and Kacey Musgraves contributes to a nice duet with Wilson, but the long list of guest stars ultimately overwhelm Wilson and the album. Wilson (and/or Thomas) seems terribly afraid of irrelevance, resulting in the infusion of awkward dance beats (“Runaway Dancer”) and attempts at reaching out to young audiences through additional appearances by Lana Del Rey (who didn’t end up recording), Zooey Deschanel (who steals the album in her once appearance), Frank Ocean (who was cut from the album), Beck (who never finished recording), and Nate Ruess. “Saturday Night” (where Wilson brags about having “no premium cable”) also sounds like an unintentional nightmare. Again, the album is an enjoyable ride (and it supports the case that Wilson has kept his sanity), but I’d much rather watch a documentary of Wilson and the guest performers having dinner together than listen to it again.
“On the Island ft. She & Him”:
Death Cab for Cutie
I hate to admit it, but Kintsugi sounds like a band past its prime, or at least instrumentalists and a producer unable to overcome a singer past his prime. Ben Gibbard’s knack for poignant detail shined on Transatlanticism; here, Gary Lightbody might as well have written the saccharine lyrics. True to the transparent title, Kintsugi finds Gibbard searching for value in flaws and insecurities. “Little Wanderer” is sappy and clichéd, the kind of song where “the cherry blossoms were blooming” in Tokyo you just know that “a photo out your window of Paris” has the Eiffel Tower featured prominently in it. “Binary Sea” is outright laughable (“Zeros and ones patterns appear/They’ll prove to all that we were here”). “Good Help (Is So Hard to Find)”, “El Dorado” and especially highlight “Ingenue” all pack a little punch and a brisker pace, even if all feel hopelessly derivative of The Postal Service and the band’s earlier work. I realize I’m being too negative here as in all honesty Kintsugi should make fans happy enough, but with two disappointing releases in a row, Gibbard and Co. risk becoming a relic if they don’t up their game.
What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
Awkwardly lodged between the joyful pseudo-profundity of The Decemberists’ paramount works and the easygoing rhythms of The Kind is Dead, the stilted What a Terrible World… sounds like a great band running out of steam. Single “Make You Better” relies on uncharacteristically simplistic lyrics and structure, acoustic “Caroline Low” (a reference to The Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No”?) sounds like an incomplete B-side and “The Singer Addresses His Audience” lacks the gravitas or excitement of previous openers like “Don’t Carry It All” and “The Crane Wife 3”. Only the brass-powered “Calvary Captain” fully escapes the mundanity. I’ve long argued that The Decemberists deserve more credit than they get, but What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World makes it hard to escape the image of once-greats.
“Make You Better”:
Friends on Mushrooms
Certainly the best psychedelic electronic Israeli album I’ve heard this year. A compilation of several popular EPs with a couple new tracks added in, Friends on Mushrooms is super danceable and thrilling throughout without a dull moment. It’s a little overwhelming for a complete newcomer like me, but both the many instrumentals and fewer tracks with vocals (“Where Do I Belong” being the standout among them) are simply awesome.
Carpenter’s debut solo album acknowledges its cinematic roots in its title. The nine electronic pieces he’s assembled are quite impressive, even if their lush and immaculate production undermines the original appeal of his music. The scores for Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween had such memorable melodies precisely because they felt as scrappy and low-budget as their respective movies, and when Carpenter was able to write music under an actual (if moderate) budget for Ghosts of Mars and Vampires, the music flopped as badly as the films. Luckily, Lost Themes is the best Carpenter output in years. “Obsidian”, in particular, spirals through multiple moods and interludes all the while maintaining an impressive cohesion. The music does often seem to be in search of an actual backdrop when it should be able to justify its own existence, but it’s nevertheless consistently exciting. Chilling closer “Night” steals the show by calling back to his (and Alan Howarth’s) expansive Halloween III score while also remaining coherent within the context of the firmly modern electronic pieces before it. Hopefully Carpenter’s next album will head in this direction.
Jon Hopkins/Various Artists
Late Night Tales
In theory, Jon Hopkins is a perfect fit for a Late Night Tales compilation. For anyone unfamiliar, each Late Night Tales installment consist of one artist mixing a selection of thematically-related music from different artists. In the final track, one of the artists reads a story. Hopkins’ phenomenal Immunity (my #2 album of 2013) took a night out as a concept, with the first half representing a dance club and the airy second half a comforting, hazy aftermath (either sleep or the next morning). His Late Night Tales feels like a sequel, with its 15+ artists mixed into a soothing and gentle listen. This is great music for reading. Hopkins’ own contribution, a piano cover of Yeasayer’s “I Remember” is perhaps the prettiest of all. Only leterette’s “After Dawn” has a pulse, and it makes for a stunning counterweight to the rest of the material. This Late Night Tales may have benefited from a couple more songs like this because at 19 tracks, the languid pace can get wearisome. But it’s absolutely gorgeous all the same and successful at presenting a brilliant artist realizing a specific vision through to the very end.
“I Remember” (Yeasayer cover):
The Nashville-based pop/hip-hop artist leans on his own story on Just Kids. Terrific opener “Heartbreak Dreamer” draws from Kearney’s difficulties growing ups and makes for a poignant anthem. Kearney has incredible charisma, and Just Kids shines when it places him and his Christian perspective center-stage. Elsewhere, pop ballads “Billions” (“Seven billion and I only want to be with you”) and “Heartbeat” (“I feel your heart beating just next to me”) drown his voice in painful cliché. Just Kids is a fun listen at first glance, but the tacky pop production quickly reveals itself as a crutch Kearney simply doesn’t need.
Strangers to Ourselves
Everyone loves Modest Mouse, but the eight years Strangers to Ourselves spent in gestation really show in its overworked arrangements. Early Modest Mouse thrived on a sense of spontaneity (give Sad Sappy Sucker a listen if you haven’t) and the commercialized, radio-friendly sounds of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and Good News for People Who Love Bad News were both balanced by off-shoot tracks like “Spitting Venom” and “Little Motel” and redeemed by the their fantastic hooks and spirit. Strangers to Ourselves is a fitting title, given how out of touch Isaac Brock and co. seem with the aesthetic that created their following. This incarnation of Modest Mouse know that they’ve made it big and can barely pretend to complain about much of anything. “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box” spins in creative bliss; “Pistol (A. Cunaman, Miami, Fl. 1996)” is flat-out embarrassing; the rest is merely serviceable.
“Lampshades on Fire”:
Even as the post-punk revival movement continues to fade irrevocably from mainstream popularity or attention, brand new gloomy outfits like the Australian quartet Nite Fields continue to spring up. Depersonalization has the feel of a debut, especially in how the band pays so much more tribute to their influences (Movement-era New Order, Seventeen Seconds-era The Cure, Joy Division) than to their own sound. Nonetheless, there’s an admirable sense of patience, restraint and building tension throughout Depersonalization that make it stand out from the pack. Layers of white noise and reverb add a Goth atmosphere to “Fill the Void”, the synth-driven “Pay for Strangers” and the cavernous 7-minute highlight “Winter’s Gone”. “You I Never Know” briefly punches through its chilling surroundings in a brief release of the alienation and dread that characterizes Nite Fields’ natural palette. Depersonalization can feel slight at first, but it’s ultimately a grower from a band with a great deal of potential.
It’s hard to say anything about Passion Pit’s third full-length that hasn’t been said better already about Michael Angelakos’ earlier work: it’s lively, it’s tons of fun, and it transcends the potentially isolating genre of one dude mixing music together. Kindred has the simultaneously symphonic and intimate feel that propelled “Sleepyhead” into international popularity back in 2008. Perhaps a few too many of the tracks seem stuck at the same soaring sonic height for most of their duration, but standouts like “Where the Sky Hangs” boom too cathartic bliss. While Kindred is less consistent than Gossamer, Manners or even the Chunk of Change EP, Angelakos continues to demonstrate a knack for music that is joyous and immediately emotive.
“Where the Sky Hangs”:
You’re Better Than This
Grunge, noise rock
Other albums on this list thrive form organized chaos; on the Boston rockers third album, lyrical and instrumental chaos are the whole point. Rick Maguire’s unhinged vocals glimmer with anger and frustration. The songs take the form of outward projections of his narrators’ (or his own) realization that their life is heading in the wrong direction, if any direction at all. The cluttered tracks feel like they were recorded live, inducing the feeling of drunkenly scattering about a late-night party after losing track of everyone you know. You’re Better Than This eschews hooks in favor of shrieks and screams from harsh guitars, drums or Maguire himself, who sounds like someone you wouldn’t want to piss off. Sometimes the venting of frustration can make for a pretty exhilarating ride.
“The World Is Your Motel”:
Electronic, dream pop
Ten more tightly written pop tunes with no excess fat around the edges. Megan James’ vocals are terrific, but both she and the music stay within a pretty narrow range. Simply put, the beats and hooks aren’t nearly as strong as Corin Roddick and James have already demonstrated that they are capable of creating, and Purity Ring shows little sonic evolution (the lack of capital letters is the most substantial stylistic difference). All of Another Eternity is decent, but the songs blur together and it ultimately plays like a mediocre remix CD of Shrines. It’s one of those albums where you keep telling yourself “I bet this would sound great live.”
Sam Prekop’s self-titled 1999 solo album was the best discovery I ever made through WRVU. It led me to track down Prekop’s work in both Shrimp Boat and The Sea and Cake. I saw him perform with the latter outfit in Nashville in October 2012. It was a bit of a sad affair – a sparsely-attended Tuesday night show at the Mercy Lounge, and I have a memory of seeing Prekop (or perhaps someone who looks like him) frowning at the small crowd from backstage before it started. Throughout the concert, one fan with a booming voice repeatedly yelled for the band to play their (fantastic) cover of David Bowie’s “Sound & Vision”, which seemed to annoy Prekop (they never played it). The Sea and Cake put on a wonderful show all the same. In my limited experience, Prekop comes across a bit of a paradoxical figure, in that his solo career has veered further and further away from anything that could attract listeners while his full band has been presenting only minute variations on the same outdated (if vibrantly realized) style to dwindling audiences for decades, but he still seems to genuinely care about producing new music and reaching out to new fans. The Republic is the least groundbreaking, important, exciting and relevant work of his career, which is saying a hell of a lot. Of course, it’s pretty good too. None of the tracks need names, but the first eight take the album’s title (“The Republic 1”, “The Republic 2”, etc.) and the rest are similarly vague (“A Geometric”, “Weather Vane”). The tracks are all ambient, abstract pieces with no singing or lyrics – they are more structures than songs. “Weather Vane” briefly kicks into a higher gear, but otherwise the mood never veers from relaxing and easygoing. This kind of music has long fascinated, even if here it feels like it belongs on a Brian Eno compilation from the 90’s. I realize I’m damning Prekop – an artist I love – with faint praise, but it’s tough to get excited when he has such a rich and vast back catalogue of better music. The Republic is certainly a great entry point if ambient is a genre that interests you and a solid album if it’s a genre you already like.
Vetiver is one of the most reliable bands I’ve encountered, having barely broken from their hazy, relaxed folk-rock since their striking 2004 debut. Their last album, The Errant Charm, added a hook or two but still drifted by like a pleasant dream. Complete Strangers is even more sublime. Only the opening track, the synth-backed “Stranger Still”, nudges at a broader sound. The rest of the album is so pleasant that it always feels like it’s fading away. The songs are as repetitive as, by this point, Vetiver’s career (or reviews of their albums), but there’s a place for consistency when the rewards are so stellar.
Good stuff, somewhere in quality between the Arcade Fire [EP] and the material from before it that the band has fought so hard to excise from their discography. Policy is competent and lively enough to escape the novelty of its performer’s identity – unlike Robin Arryn, Will Butler has plenty more than the gift of a respected last name as his contributions to the full band have long-demonstrated. The synth-driven “Anna” is better than plenty of Reflektor. Anyone else want to see Will Butler team up with Phil Selway?
The awful video for “Anna”: