Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top 40 of 2013 - #20 to #16

Now entering the Top 20 of 2013:


Best Coast
Fade Away EP
(Jewel City)

First of all, this EP release corrects a huge wrong.  Best Coast’s offering for Record Store Day back in April was a 7” with two excellent new songs and it would’ve been a mistake to have them relegated to limited edition vinyl only status.  Fade Away corrects this easily by placing “Fear of My Identity” and the super standout “Who Have I Become?” in the middle of this collection.  This is also their first release on their own label Jewel City.  Now that the information business is out of the way, Best Coast’s latest is exactly what I needed to hear from them.  After hooking me with their debut album, Crazy For You, a couple of years ago, their second long player was only okay, so it’s refreshing to hear Beth Cosentino bursting back onto the scene with her bright melodies and endlessly catchy harmonies and such relatable words to sing along with.  These seven songs though, unlike Crazy For You, are recorded with a budget and a big sound like The Only Place only not so stiff sounding.  These songs are injected with a full band this time, fiery energy and a sound that isn’t so far removed from the pop rock (sans guitar solos) of Cheap Trick.  Cosentino’s still singing about loneliness, heartbreak and being uncertain, but she does it with such an effortless ease.  Her ability to turn dark emotions that always feel complex and impossible to escape into simple straight forward words is remarkable and most welcome.  It doesn’t matter if we’re teenagers, twenty something’s like her, or old like me, we all feel these feelings she expresses, so it’s nice to have someone who expresses them so well for us and to a rocking soundtrack to boot!  The two opening songs “This Lonely Morning” and “I Wanna Know” are both high fidelity energetic recordings of songs that could’ve easily fit into her debut, but it’s the aforementioned “Who Have I Become?” that feels like it could go on and on with 100 conversational verses of life and relationship confusion that never get old – despite what she says (“And now I’m tired, oh so tired of this story being told / when did I wake up and suddenly my soul had grown so old?”).  Meanwhile, the title track and “Baby I’m Crying” fulfill the slow dance songs with big sounding echoing drums and low end bass guiding us through more heartbreak.  The closing “I Don’t Know How” opens up with an early 60s girl group doo wop beat that hints at the Shangri-La’s, before bursting out into a full blown up beat rock song and those huge repetitive vocals driving home the confusion of all.  Feeling lost and alone may have never sounded so exciting.  More of this please!!


Club 8
Above the City

I’ve always taken Swedish duo Club 8 for granted.  For the last 15 or so years, since I first heard them, they’ve occasionally released really enjoyable pop records, which I’ve purchased, absorbed and then slowly let them drift from my mind until a few years later when another album appears.  I’ve never written about them, and for some unknown reason, I’ve rarely shared their music with others.  Well, this has to change.  Club 8’s eighth album, Above the City, comes on the heels of their most surprising album, 2010’s The People’s Record, an album that somehow brought in all kinds of varied world music rhythms and beats and melded it all into their sugar sweet Swedish electronic pop without losing their identity.  Sometimes this worked brilliantly, while other moments were a little sketchy.  But who can argue with the idea of throwing a celebration for the world in the wake of what seems like pretty dark times?  This came on the heels of my personal favorite of theirs, The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Dreaming (2007), where the duo of songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (not to mention label chief for Labrador Records and leader of multiple bands) Johan Angergård and smooth vocalist Karolina Komstedt perfected their winsome and friendly dance pop and created a warm and comforting album that captured the title’s dreaming reference with precision.  This current record, on the other hand, finds them re-embracing their electronic roots and making the boldest songs of their long career.  Aside from the excellent, mysterious and dark opener, “Kill Kill Kill,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on Still Corners’ debut horror film soundtrack Creatures of an Hour or in a David Lynch movie, there are many bright moments of huge choruses and bass heavy dance numbers.  “Stop Taking My Time” comes on strong with a dominating rhythm vibration and the breathy Komstedt’s most upfront and strong vocal performance.  Similarly, the heavy bass of “Into Air” reminds of mildly of a late 80s Depeche Mode musically (“Behind the Wheel” maybe), but instead with a dreamy vocal performance spelling out the wounds of a broken relationship.  “You Could Be Anybody” is another classic addictive dance number, which wouldn’t sound out of place on any of their albums.  The two lighter than air 80s pop numbers “A Small Piece of Heaven,” (think of Book of Love’s breathy “uh huh” answer from “Boy” atop a calypso inspired beat) and the reinvention of Madonna’s “Holiday” with “I Don’t Want to Grow Old” are both begging you to dance.  Meanwhile, “Run” comes on with big pounding percussion, an otherworldly monster howl, and then a sing-a-long chorus that is danceable while attempting to find solace in a lifetime of regrets by simply running from problems (“Fuck it baby, we’ve got nothing left to prove”).  The final two songs on the album, “Less Than Love” and “Straight as an Arrow,” also incorporate these massive percussive beats and riffs stolen from classic rock clichés, (especially the closer’s “We Will Rock You” motif), but are somehow freshened by the incorporation of The People’s Record influence of big vocal harmonies (“woah woahs”) that make it easy to lose oneself completely into the songs.  How this duo can maintain such a consistent legacy while incorporating so many varied influences is beyond me, but as long as they keep releasing inspired albums such as this every few years, I will continue to listen.  I suggest you do the same.


The House of Love
She Paints Words in Red
(Cherry Red)

There was a time when the House of Love was my favorite band.  They were the perfect bridge between my love of the Smiths and the dreampop or “shoegaze” that launched the 90s.  The fuzzy haze of their huge “Christine” was still imbued with the intricate acoustic flourishes of the (other so-called) C86 bands (I am not a proponent of these tags, but people generally know what I mean, so I feel stuck with them sometimes), but absolutely alive with a unique beautiful dissonant buzz.  Their 1988 debut was filled with inspired songs that sounded wholly original, as did their scratchy second LP (the Butterfly cover – recorded during their acrimonious split with guitarist Terry Bickers).  Bickers is an amazing guitarist with a touch that reminds of the variety of dexterity of the lauded Johnny Marr, but it has been with the laser sharp focus of Guy Chadwick’s songwriting that he has really shone.  So after more than a decade of silence, the group reformed (with 3 of the 4 original members), finally reuniting this tour de force pairing.  The initial result was the uneven, but sometimes spectacular (“Gotta Be This Way”), Days Run Away.  Now, out of nowhere, they’ve returned 8 years later with another new album (their sixth).  She Paints Words in Red, oddly, sounds most like the Bickers-less third self-titled album (known as Babe Rainbow).  Much like that album, this is filled with a more relaxed and pretty sound.  The band even revived and revamped the Babe-era B-side (from “The Girl with the Loneliest Eyes” single) “Purple Killer Rose” (re-titled “PKR”).  That old song is really the only one here that contains the old tension that drove those early days, which is sadly missing.  However, it is so welcoming to hear their sound again.  Chadwick’s smooth vocals haven’t aged a bit, and the interplay of guitars on the album’s opener, “A Baby Got Back on its Feet,” reminds us of what this band is capable of.  The sprightly sounding “Hemingway” contains some of Chadwick’s biting lyrics, but through the veil of Hemingway’s storied history.  The straightforward ballad “Lost in the Blues” is a fantastic piece chronicling the troubles of a broken-hearted ruffian.  This is a band that has grown up and let go the tensions and bitterness of the past, but these songs are still filled with heartbreak and regrets and the calmer sound reflects the lessening of the blow of loss that comes with age and experience.  This idea is best expressed in the spacious closer “Eye Dream,” when Chadwick tells us he’s “tired of gnawing, dulling pain / drilling like rain / I sleep again / and heading for the top of yet another stormy day / I just dream.”  I dream that these guys continue to grace us with their amazing songs and that one day I can write a less awkward review.


Spotlight kid
“Budge Up” (download)
“Sugar Pills” (download)
(Saint Marie)

I’m still learning a lot about this Nottingham six piece.  I first started reading about them late last year (yes, I still learn about music by reading about it), when their excellent Disaster Tourist was released domestically in an expanded edition via fledgling Texas based so-called shoegaze label Saint Marie.  This album definitely would’ve hit fairly high on my Top 40 last year, if I had purchased it in time.  It is full of those atmospheric layers of guitars that I love so much, yet still pushed to the edge by a driving rhythm section and no shortage of melody and hooks.  So, it was with great interest that I tracked down their two download singles this year in lead up to their soon to be released 2014 album 10,000 Hours (just learning that this will be their third!  Back to the shops for more research.).  “Budge Up” was the first release to see the light of day back in March.  The single comes with three remixes, but I chose to bypass and pick up the ‘single edit.’  This song plays on their strengths, as a hazy fog of beautiful noise hangs around the air, much like Slowdive perfected in this genre’s heyday.  However, what Spotlight Kid have learned from those magical days is that what made those bands and sounds so special wasn’t just the layers of feedback turned into majestic and stunning noise, it was the fact that they brought actual songs and a serious ability to rock.  Like their contemporaries, the Joy Formidable, the History of Apple Pie and Cheatahs, Spotlight Kid take as much from Slowdive as they do from Swervedriver, or the earliest EPs from Moose.  It’s what I’ve been waiting years to hear again.  Katty Heath’s dreamy vocals are a perfect fit for their sound, but they are not too buried to hide what she’s singing about – even though the chorus here is made up of dramatic “do-do-do’s.”  Meanwhile, “Sugar Pills” takes a similar take to Ride’s 1992 classic “Leave Them All Behind” (which in itself referred back to the late 60s Rolling Stones), by opening the song with a floating flute sound that erupts into a pounding thriller.  The rhythm section here shines with a burbling bass line and the four on the floor tough and smashing drum work.  This is absolutely huge and a step forward in pure sonic power.  Man, I am looking forward to their next album!


Joanna Gruesome
Weird Sister

This exhilarating debut is quite a find!  Much like last year’s Evans to Death debut (also on the great Slumberland), this tumultuous album is brimming with life and an uncanny ability to guide us through ups and downs and full on throttling tunes.  Unfortunately, I was a little late the game on this release, so I’m writing on limited listens.  I’m pretty sure this would rate higher with more exposure and a better chance to delve into the schizophrenic lyrics that I’ve gleaned so far.  But none of that matters at the moment, as vocalist Alanna McArdle invokes both the angry shouts of the early 90s riot grrl bands and the sweet harmonizing of Veronica Falls’ Roxanne Clifford, as best exemplified on the frantic highlight “Secret Surprise,” where she’s dreams of pulling out our teeth.  Similarly, guitarists Owen Williams and George Nicholls walk along these lines by alternating unexpectedly between frenetic forceful strums (a la early Wedding Present and Boyracer), feedback explosions, and memorable ringing melodies – all within seconds of each other on the same song.  Despite this album’s relentlessness and continuous assault, it is crammed with memorable songs and plenty of variety simply based on the various dynamics on display.  The opening “Anti-Parent Cowboy Killers” is a perfect introduction to the band, because it covers all of their bases in roughly two and a half minutes.  “Sugarcrush,” “Lemonade Grrrl,” and “Graveyard” are all high speed punked up numbers, while “Wussy Void,” “Candy” and the finale “Satan” show us some slower tempos – though not lacking in their sheer intensity.  It’s a good thing the entire album is less than 29 minutes, because I am exhausted.

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