[Loma Vista; 2015]
When HEALTH first started, they were noise-art to the extreme. If you want to test someone’s intestinal fortitude, put on that self-titled debut, turn it up as high as you can without bursting eardrums, and sit back to face the carnage. The drums were tribal bedlam. The guitars were shattering dissonance. The synths were icicles, sending chills down your spine. But amidst all this chaos, Jacob Duzsik’s vocals eerily sang vaporous melodies like a deceased choirboy stuck in limbo. Despite all the madness, the vocals represented the deus ex machine, keeping the sputtering tank from crushing over mankind.
The remix album DISCO that came out a year later helped expose the band’s serene little secret. While I prefer the debut to its remix predecessor, that album gave hints toward what this band could possibly sound like going forward. 2009’s Get Color stayed true to their initial style, although it featured moments of pop sensibility, and once again, the remix album that coincided with it even further revealed the melodies buried under the violent synths.
I think Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker is slowly becoming a real life version of Don Draper. The obvious connection can be seen in their shared creative brilliance – Draper in the fictional world of Mad Men with his ability to come up with advertising ideas off the cuff and Parker’s track record of releasing psychedelic pop music tailored for the 21st century. But the connection goes deeper than just their mutual ingenuity. The similarity I see is in how both struggle with change.
During the final two seasons of Mad Men, many loyal fans jumped ship due in large part to the show’s retreading of familiar tropes. Unlike most dramas, the antagonist never really showed growth. Instead, he continued his cycle of infidelity and alcoholism, followed by a fleeting realization of his mistakes before returning back again to his vices. Even the finale suggested that he hadn’t really changed during his West Coast spirit quest, finding only an idea for a Coke advertisement waiting for him on the cliffs of Big Sur. Instead of seeing Mad Men mastermind Matthew Weiner as a pessimist, I like to believe he wanted to show the struggles found in the human condition, that internal yearning for change and growth followed by the eventual return to our bad habits.
On his first two efforts, I didn’t see Miguel as much more than a cheap Prince imitation. He had the pompadour hair, the gentle falsetto, and the guitar theatrics of The Artist Formerly Known As, but in my opinion, he lacked the songwriting chops. I probably wouldn’t have even checked out his new album based solely off my unsatisfactory experience with his past efforts, but then, he said the following in response to a question about neo-soul luminary Frank Ocean: “I genuinely believe that I make better music, all the way around.”
As a staunch supporter of Ocean after his soulful 2012 effort Channel Orange, I had to check Miguel’s Wildheart, if only to scoff at his empty, chest-thumping boast. I went into my first Wildheart listen in the crouched, ready to pounce stance, and left the experience feeling relaxed, nourished, and overall surprised by how much Miguel has grown as a songwriter and producer since Kaleidoscope Dream.
In 2013, Mackenzie Scott (who performs under the name “Torres”) came bursting out the gates with a debut that was intimate, honest, and powerful. Over sparse production and reverberated guitars, she displayed her vocal prowess, moving from hushed whispers to impassioned, operatic swells of aggravation. Each track dealt with emotional stories of struggle and realization, but for the most part, they provided glimmers of hope when in their most dire state.
Brett Morgen’s HBO documentary Montage of Heck is a gut-punch for anyone who grew up listening to Nirvana and lived through the eventual suicide of Kurt Cobain. In the film, Cobain’s life is told through his own home videos, journals, and drawings, all conveying the troubled life of a genius that never truly felt accepted by those around him and the world as a whole. As I watched this therapeutic film, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d ever have another artist come along that has as big of an impact on a generation as Kurt had on Generation X. In a musical landscape that is littered with Justin Beibers and Taylor Swifts, where are those kids who were weaned by Nirvana from birth and why hasn’t that influence resonated in the music of today?
In what could only be a sign from beyond, the latest METZ album, II, arrived in the mail the day after I viewed the documentary. On their sophomore release, this trio of 20-somethings from Calgary, Canada burst from the confines of the recording studio with a frenzied dissonance and unbridled fury that could only come from the womb of Nirvana.
Carrie & Lowell
[Asthmatic Kitty; 2015]
An air of mystery has surrounded much of Sufjan Steven’s prolific career. His success is due in large part to his ability to write memorable stories with universal themes that connect with a wide-range of listeners, yet there has always been an ambiguity in whether the stories he tells are based on real life experiences or just plots he’s pulled from old issues of the Chicago Tribune and The Detroit Free Press. I suppose it doesn’t really matter if a song is drawn straight from a songwriter’s life – Bruce Springsteen never worked in a factory, Bob Dylan never worked on Maggie’s Farm, and Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno (that we know of).
Regardless, the listening experience is always going to be heightened when you know it’s drawn from the songwriter’s real life experiences, which has made Sufjan’s questionably personal songs all the more confounding. Did he really lose a childhood friend to a wasp bite? Did he ever live in a trailer park and own a snowmobile? Was he ever a best man, and did he in fact wear a tux that was a size too small?
Man It Feels Like Space Again
I’m not quite sure what’s going on in Australia these days, but based off the recent influx of innovative psychedelic pop bands from Down Under (Tame Impala, John Steel Singers, Blank Realm) someone might want to check the water for traces of DMT. Often lost in this Aussie Invasion is the outlandish, psych-outfit, Pond. Many may see them as a side-project to the more widely popular Tame Impala (only one member of the band hasn’t served time with Pond), but this is an unfortunate misconception.
Pond’s latest release, Man It Feels Like Space Again is evidence that these Vegemite stoners deserve more credit for the mind-expanding mischief they’ve concocted over the course of six albums. Not that you should take their bubbly, far-out mix of melodies seriously – these songs are meant to be silly and fun. It’s this complete lack of pretension that makes their rumpus ride more deserving of accolades from psych-pop aficionados. In fact, that refusal to take themselves too seriously helped to make the Pond listening experience stand in stark contrast to their more well-known brother-band, Tame Impala. While Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker ponders the emotional struggles that come with loneliness and isolation, Pond opts to sing songs with titles like “Elvis Flaming Star” and “Heroic Shart” (yes, “shart” – that magical contraction of the words “shit” and “fart”).