Saturday, December 28, 2013

Top 40 of 2013 - #30 to #26

The countdown continues…


Haunted Hearts
“Something That Feels Bad is Something That Feels Good” 7”
(Zoo Music)

The first Haunted Hearts release is a collaboration between Brandon Welchez (Crocodiles) and Dee Dee Penny (Dum Dum Girls) who not only run the label this record was released on, but are also married.  What they’ve come up with is not surprisingly a perfect melding of their two respective bands’ sounds.  They retain both of their cooler than cool,  mildly lo-fi aesthetic with the simple drum machine and buzzing and drill bit driving guitar work.  This harkens back to late 80s Jesus and Mary Chain – landing somewhere between Darklands and Automatic sound-wise and there is nothing wrong with that.  “Something That Feels Bad is Something That Feels Good” comes along with both of their vocals blending perfectly to tell us “it’s alright…you can tie me tight.”  Yes, this is a song that sticks to its guns.  The title says it all.  The more, let’s say, naughty something feels, sometimes the more we cannot resist its pull.  Meanwhile, the flipside provides another smash song with “House of Lords.”  Where on the A-Side, Brandon takes the main vocals with Dee Dee chiming in emphasizing backing and harmonizing vocals; “House of Lords” finds them singing perfectly in unison atop of a relentless bass line.  This is a pretty cool little single and there’s always the hope that they decide to explore this further, but without disturbing the beautifully consistent release schedule of their respective bands.  How’s that for demanding?


Bad Religion
True North

What can I say about Bad Religion that has not already been said a million times before?  This is their 16th album in their 33 or so years as an entity and they haven’t changed a whole lot during most of that time.  They have their little eras with changes and small upheavals, but they’ve been putting out essentially the same album since 1988, and somehow this hasn’t hurt them all that much.  Maybe it’s because they are so good at what they do.  They are a rare intelligent voice of reason and they are willing to take on the tough political issues of the day.  Maybe their outrage and disgust would become more tiresome, if things weren’t always so fucked up.  This time, much of the focus is on the state of the nation since the financial collapse, and the continuing robbery from the poor by the wealthy with help from our government, no less (“Robin Hood in Reverse,” “Land of Endless Greed”), and the frightening direction of willing ignorance (“Past is Dead,”).  Since the return of Mr. Brett in 2001, Bad Religion have wielded three guitarists and recommitted to the short, fast explosions of tight melodic punk that they perfected in the late 80s (in my opinion, their peak – from 1988’s Suffer through to their zenith 1990’s Against the Grain.  Though, personally, I love the dark Generator from 1992 and the stylistic breakthrough of 1993’s Recipe for Hate).  It is all done with great precision and yet somehow maintains its urgency and excellence.  Yes, they’ve become an institution, but it’s one that I can get behind.


The Invisible Way
The Visible End EP
“Stay” (download)
(Sub Pop)

For Low’s 10th album (in a twenty year history!!), they’ve recruited Jeff Tweedy of Wilco to produce.  When I first heard this, I thought that maybe they’d delve back into their more noisy experimental sounds of their first two with Sub Pop (The Great Destroyer and Drums and Guns), but instead they’ve stripped everything down to a dry spare acoustic sound, which is quite different than the open air echo cathedral sound of 2011’s C’Mon (2011 #29 pick seen here).  It’s amazing how many ways this modest three piece manages to create songs that are so simple and sparse and yet so different from album to album.  Is this really the first LP where the instrumentation has been dominated by acoustic guitars and piano?  The clarity and space in this recording remind me of the first time I saw them perform live at Portland’s old X-Ray CafĂ©.  I’ll never forget sitting on the carpeted bench stairs/seats in the back, hearing their glacial introspective sounds mix with the rush of the traffic from Burnside just outside - truly transformative.  This is a remarkable and cohesive album, especially with more balance between Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s lead vocals – giving added depth and variety.  Parker generally takes over the lead vocals about 2-3 songs per album, but here sings upfront in half (while still adding her magical backing vocals to Sparhawk’s songs).  There are some highlights here, such as the opening “Plastic Cup,” which finds a way to gradually shift us into their current direction inside a song that would be fitting on any of their records.  “Clarence White” is a solid centerpiece with Mimi’s pounding bass drum and handclaps guiding us through an intriguing tribute, while the Parker led “Just Make it Stop” is the show stopping climax of the album.  It isn’t until about halfway through “On My Own” that we encounter the discordant experimentalism that I had predicted before hearing the album. 

The Visible End is a 4-track EP that came along with early copies of the album and is simply and odds and ends addendum.  This includes demo versions of “Clarence White” and “Holy Ghost,” and a nice emboldened version of the album’s “So Blue (So Young)”.  The EP closes with a long droning instrumental named “Clarence What?”

Finally, after performing Rihanna’s touching piano ballad “Stay” at a music festival during the summer, Low released a proper recording as a download to raise money for the Rock for Kids charity.  This cover is as straightforward as can be.  They do nothing to change its simple beauty and starkness.  In the past, their covers have shown them molding post punk classics like Joy Division’s “Transmission” and The Smiths’ “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” into their own unique deliberate style.  However, “Stay,” sounds like a song that could’ve sat somewhere on The Invisible Way as an original.  Nice trick and more than worth the buck for a good cause


Arts & Leisure
Choose Your Adventure
(Test Pattern)

I know next to nothing about Sacramento, California, but I sure am liking the music that that city’s label, Test Pattern Records, has been releasing the last few years!  This debut album from Arts & Leisure rises from the quiet end of the band Baby Grand (one of apparently many out there).  Baby Grand had four releases, but I only discovered their brand of breezy French inflected orchestral pop with last year’s finale Arts & Leisure.  So, now, three of that band’s members stripped away some of that additional instrumentation, turned up the amplifiers, added a new bassist/vocalist Becky Cale, and borrowed their final album’s title for their new band name and the results are excellent.  This reminds a bit of when the late great Sacramento band Holiday Flyer morphed into the California Oranges.  They were essentially the same band, but suddenly stricken with a pop rock buzz that was markedly different than their predecessor.  Whatever the case, this new album is most welcome.  The dynamics and variety and straight to the point melodies and arrangements (the entire thing flies by in less than a half hour) make this a memorable and fun adventure to choose.  Gerri White’s breathy vocals are more upfront and sharper here and her voice is perfectly suited to be emboldened by the addition of Cale’s harmonies.  The album is bookended by twin dreamy songs referring to flight (“Seconds from Flight” and “Enjoy Your Flight”) that gradually ease us into this new band’s direction.  It is with the ultra poppy “Wolf Pack” that we really see the changes.  This addictive jaunty two and a half minutes captures the sunshine fueled energy and buzz that has timelessly run through the annals of pop and yet always sounds fresh.  This isn’t far removed from Southern California’s wonderful Nushu.  Likewise, “Toria” bursts onto the scene with a crafty guitar melody, handclaps and a lingering feedback hum that guide us through another exciting tune.  There’s also the quick jangle tumultuous “Rescue Me” and the building anticipation of “Hello” that guide us from the difficulty of getting over heartbreak into a fresh new crush.  It’s funny, because I prefer this upbeat new direction from their previous band, but it’s the quieter poignant moments that really shine here.  The acoustic beginnings of “Once” easily flow into a wonderfully elegant floater that hints at early Lush, while the remarkably poignant and stunning “The River” begins with a beautiful haunting bass line that creates a melancholic and reflective mood that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Ocean Blue’s Cerulean.  This song is worth the price of admission alone.  What a great debut!


Magnet School
“Fur & Velvet” (download single)

Here’s a Texas band who have apparently been around for some time (they show a debut album dating back to 2007), but this is the first I’ve heard of them - and what an introduction!  This two song digital 7” (?) is an absolute scorcher!!  “Fur & Velvet” comes on with a pounding beat and an open-ended heavily effected guitar strum before a second grinding guitar kicks in and off we go.  This song draws a lot of inspiration from the magnificence of Swervedriver – though the vocalist has that scratchy classic rock voice of Liam Gallagher from Oasis.  In a just world, a driving massive sounding song like this should be getting airplay all over the globe.  The “b” side of this release, “Swan Dive,” is an instrumental that unbelievably burns even hotter than the “a.”  The shredding guitar assault reaches for the skies, while the heavy rhythm section keep things tight and moving forward.  This is a fundraiser for their second album and with songs like this, I urge you to get involved!

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