Chad VanGaalen should probably be one of the biggest indie music artists out there today. Over the past ten years he has released five solid albums of his signature psychedelic, folk-scapes. Van Gaalen isn’t some little artist hidden on an obscure record label; all of his work has been released by SubPop, the same label that carries indie heavyweights like Fleet Foxes, Beach House, and The Shins.
Yet when I bring his name up to other fans of underground music, it often results in quizzical looks. Yes, his songs are filled with grotesque imagery and off-kilter story-lines that may appall the masses, but that same recipe once gave Jeff Mangum and his band Neutral Milk Hotel legendary status.
VanGaalen’s talent as a songwriter is matched by his artistic integrity. All of his albums have been recorded in his garage with VanGaalen doing most of the production and instrumentation. He does all the artwork on his album covers, and he even goes so far as to create all of his music videos as well. Obviously SubPop recognizes this genius amongst us by allowing him to do pretty much whatever he wants with his music, but why hasn’t the rest of the music world wisened up to this brilliance?
With Light and With Love
Five albums in and not much has changed with Wood’s music, at least on the surface. The band still has that lo-fi Americana, stoner groove that people (including myself) first fell in love with five years ago with Songs of Shame, but upon closer inspection, their latest release With Light and With Love reveals the band’s immense growth as both musicians and songwriters.
Back in the beginning, the band was best known and appreciated for its lo-fi production and ramshackle performances. Wood’s sloppiness also served as its strength – a band whose recordings often sounded like live performances captured on an old, dusty tape recorder buried in the couch cushions next to a long forgotten joint.
The Future’s Void
On EMA’s debut Past Life Martyred Saints, Ericka M. Anderson exposed every weakness and flaw imaginable on what would be one of the most emotionally raw albums of 2011. To expect her to return to the well of misery again would be masochistic, and fortunately with The Future’s Void, she’a turned the mirror on the listener, exploring our self-image and how we mold, mutilate, and mask it via the internet. While Martyred Saints examined how we see ourselves, 2014’s The Future’s Void dissects how we want other’s to see us and the self-inflicted vulnerability that comes with it.
Anderson has claimed that The Future Void isn’t a concept album. Despite this assertion, every song on the album seems to merge at some point back toward references to what she sardonically labels as the “superhighway.” From the cover image of her holding up a vacuumous virtual reality headset to the songs’ reoccurring imagery of “Big Brother” watching over us, this album definitely has a focus if not an overlying theme. This message is best found on album highlight “3Jane” where Anderson laments “Feel like I glued my soul out across the inter-webs and screamed/…It left a hole so big inside of me.” The song builds over a rolling piano as Anderson whispers out her futile frustrations.
The War On Drugs
Lost in the Dream
[Secretly Canadian; 2014]
In the world of music journalism, the act of writing about one’s self within an album review is frowned upon. I try to adhere to this detached, information-based approach, although I probably fail to keep my own experiences out of a review more than I’d like. Take the latest War On Drugs album Lost in the Dream as an example. I’ve sat down several times over the past few weeks to write about this album of unrestrained synth-rock, but each time the review spirals into a therapy session on how this introspective music affected me in a vulnerable moment. Despite my inability to write about this album without bringing in my personal connection to the music, I still feel compelled to review Lost in the Dream, an album that has meant the world to me the past month.
It all started three weeks ago with a jarring text message from a friend, received just moments before the workday began: “James died last night at midnight.” My friend had been battling with leukemia for two years, and I’d already been warned that his final days were approaching. Regardless, I still wasn’t ready for the news – I guess we never are. The combination of shock and the workload in front of me helped me to quickly move on with my day, sweeping the horrible news under the metaphorical rug.
Have a Nice Life
The Unnatural World
[The Flesner; 2014]
Recently Trevor Powers (the brains behind Youth Lagoon) pleaded on Twitter, “Please, no more genres. Find a better way to classify music.” Only a few weeks prior, NPR writer Bob Boilen questioned the future of labeling sounds with a blog entitled “Can You Imagine a World Without Music Genres?” Both of them have a point. With new bastardized sub-genres popping up daily, it’s getting to the point where one will be required to use an algorithm to crack the sub-genre code laid out by the all-knowing music reviewer.
Sun Kil Moon
[Caldo Verde; 2014]
Mark Kozelek’s music has never been about the lyrics. Whether it be his time with Red House Painters, his solo work, or his latest project Sun Kil Moon, his calming tenor and intricate guitar picking always took precedence over the metaphor-cloaked lyrics. I’ve been a fan of Kozelek’s work for the past decade, and the only lyrics that stand out in my mind are not even his, rather, from his two cover albums Tiny Cities (Modest Mouse) and What’s Next To the Moon (AC/DC).
In the past few years he has released a couple lackluster albums that suggested his muse was waning, but with his latest, Benji, it looks like that imminent closing window resulted in him throwing away his tride-and-true blueprint and starting anew. In a recent interview Kozelek said of his new start: “I’ve run out of metaphors, and when you get older, you’re bothered, or inspired, by other things in life than a girl breaking up with you. Things get heavier as you get older.”