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”).
Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear
On the latest BDWPS Podcast (check it out here), I took a look back at the music that defined the year 1972. One of the most popular genres at the time was the singer/songwriter movement. While Bob Dylan certainly “brought back” the folk movement in the early 60s, artists like Carole King, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Don McLean, Harry Chapin, and Jim Croce took this personal approach to songwriting and made it more palatable to the masses. Their songs were simple odes to the power of love and appreciation for the simpler things. These artists may have dominated the mainstream, but during that same time, a different vein of songwriters were releasing a strange mix of melodies and storytelling that didn’t fit within the cookie cutter constraints of the radio friendly folkies. Guys like Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, and Harry Nilsson were creating innovative songs that strayed outside the norm. Sure, they still all had a knack for melody, but their lyrics were filled with cynicism, humor, and despair.
Father John Misty (real name J. Tillman) is a welcomed throw-back to this unconventional approach to songwriting. There are certainly a large of amount of singer/songwriters out there today creating songs that are weird and avant-garde, but the difference with Father John Misty is his voice. It’s soft and smooth like velvet. It’s rich and strong like mahogany. It’s magical and hypnotic like the northern lights. At times his voice reminds me of Nilsson, at other times it conjures up memories of Jeff Buckley. I shouldn’t be so shocked that a professional musician has such a phenomenal voice, but guys who sing about running down the road naked on hallucinogenic drugs aren’t supposed to sound this good.
[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”?