When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day
Two years ago, Mirel Wagner emerged from Finland like a haunting ghost, bringing with her the sparse, folk storytelling that had long been forgotten. Her songs told darkly disturbing fairy tales of death and decay, all conveyed through only her raspy, alto voice and the soft strumming of her guitar. Her approach seemed simple enough, but the combination of the lo-fi production and Mirel’s hypnotic melodies resulted in one of the best folk albums of 2012.
When I first purchased Wagner’s latest release, When the Cellar Children See the Light, I worried that the sophomore curse would hinder all the elements that made her first album great. Would the songs sound as gritty with amped up production value? Would Wagner lose sight of the muse that inspired such intense songs as “No Death” and “To the Bone”?
[Polyvinyl / Transgressive; 2014]
Nostalgia-based music is far from a new thing. Every year 100s of bands release albums paying homage to the sounds of old, ranging from 60s psychedelia, 70s prog-rock, or 80s new wave. With their self-titled debut, Alvvays (pronounced “Always”) are just another one of these bands borrowing heavily from the past, but the difference with this Nova Scotia quintet from many others is the flawless craftsmanship displayed through every track on the album.
I’m not suggesting that what Alvvays have created is perfect. In fact, pristine musicianship and production would tarnish exactly what makes the album so great. Thanks to producer/genius Chad VanGaalen, the album’s rough, lo-fi exterior amplifies the warm and welcoming heart of the music. The songs are a refreshing mix of 60s pop and 80s new wave, blending the jangly guitars of the Mama’s and the Papas with the no-nonsense synths of Kraftwerk. This is far from a paint by genre venture with the album’s constant reliance on a rumbling under current of overdrive helping to give it a faint punk aftertaste.
[Sacred Bones; 2014]
Whether it be the turmoil between Israel and Hamas, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Malaysian crash over the Ukrainian war zone, or the continued violence in Iraq, it’s safe to say that the world has fallen on hard times. Even the music world has taken note of the uncertainty with a handful of dystopian albums being released this year (EMA, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, Damon Albarn). With all the doom and gloom in the air, it’s surprising that an often unpredictable and brooding artist like Amen Dunes have released an album that can best be described as stripped-down and placid.
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.