[Jagjaguwar/Flemish Eye; 2015]
Around ten years ago, one of the biggest sounds to emerge was what I would call “imitation post-punk.” Bands like Bloc Party, Interpol, and The Bravery put out entertaining albums that borrowed heavily from the post-punk sounds of the late 70s and early 80s. A dash of Gang of Four angular guitars here, a smidge of PiL’s haunting synths there, and a catchy melody to boot – you’ve got yourself the ingredients for a nostalgia-based album. While it was fun to listen to these bands playing a game of “Where’d they steal that from?” the whole movement also felt a bit empty and inauthentic, much in the same way a re-release of Boo-Berry (now with more corn syrup!) didn’t sit well with cereal-aficionados.
In the past, Perfume Genius’s album covers have featured variations on images that convey fear, secrecy, and the forbidden. On 2010’s Learning, Mike Hadreas could be seen looking away while a hand is reaching in from off-screen to cover his mouth. On 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It, Hadreas is joined by what resembles a polo team, and once again, his face is obscured, this time by a bloodied piece of cloth that also covers the boy sitting next to him. The images matched the common theme of silence and shame found on those first two albums.
So when I first saw the boisterous, in your face presentation on the cover of 2014’s Too Bright, I knew I was in for a drastic change from the established, introspective piano therapy of the past. Hadreas can be seen sitting upright, wearing a shimmery shirt covered in gold sequence. His face is no longer covered, and his expression is not one of fear, rather one of defiant intensity. Below his knitted brow, any icy cold stare off into the distance is revealed. This is no longer a man hiding from his past; instead, he’s ready to take it head-on.
Cymbals Eat Guitars
Back in 2009, Cymbals Eat Guitars first caught my attention with their first single,“And the Hazy Sea.” The song was a mish-mash of indie rock, a Pavement meets Superchunk meets The Pixies meets Built to Spill meets Modest Mouse type of conglomeration that one could only dreamed of in the mid-90s. I can still remember the first time I heard the song as a sample on a music website and how instantly I transformed into a teenager in that moment, re-connecting with all the greats from the previous decade. Unfortunately, the rest of the debut album, Why There Are Mountains, didn’t quite live up to the frenzied tide of “And the Hazy Sea,” but I still expected a bright future from the band.
In 2011 they returned with Lenses Alien, an album that received favorable reviews but still lacked the same intensity of that first track. I chocked it up to a band striking gold once and never seeing the light again. Thankfully, my assessment was completely wrong.
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?