2013 has been a strange year. The first half of the year had passed before I truly felt much of a spark from the music that I draw so much from. There were January disappointing announcements of two promising young bands calling it quits (Nature Set and Standard Fare). There were exciting returns from legendary bands, such as My Bloody Valentine – something that seemed like it would never happen – but in the end, their newest self-released album left me feeling empty and unmoved. It sounded like so-so B-sides that wouldn’t have made the cut on their amazing late 80s Creation EPs. It’s nice to have them back and maybe baby steps are what they needed to make, since following up their groundbreaking 1991 loveless is next to impossible.
Similarly, we saw another surprising reappearance from the Pixies after 22 years. Sure, they've been touring relentlessly for the better part of a decade, but it's been all the old stuff. So, the odd news that Kim Deal had left the band coincided with news of new material. Whatever the case, the initial free download offering of "Bagboy" was promising. It contained many of the elements that made them groundbreaking and now legendary, but had a new twist. However, their proper re-debut with EP-1 is simply a collection of four disappointing generic songs.
Then there was the re-appearance of my more recent favorites Editors, releasing their fourth LP, but this time without founding guitarist Chris Urbanowicz. His input and creative style of playing was clearly a huge part of what made Editors so good, because the resultant The Weight of Love is an okay collection of Kings of Leon sounding love ballads and big U2 style anthems. It does not contain the magic that originally drew me to the band in the first place. Too bad.
Yet, as the year reached the end of summer, music started to click into full force again – into an embarrassment of riches, making me wish I had riches to afford it all. Every year is an excellent one for music; it’s just a matter of tracking it down. Sometimes it takes more time and energy than others, but it is out there and 2013 turned out to be pretty special.
Summer of Blood
Summer of Blood EP
Well, this is quite interesting. A menacingly titled debut EP limited to only 50 copies. This five songer is lovingly pieced together with lots of little inserts in the sleeve and an old school photocopied cut and paste style information page. I don’t know much about this fledgling Sheffield band, except that it formed out of the ashes of the tragically short-lived Nature Set – a band who weren’t around long enough to release an album, but whose two EPs managed their way into my heart with their pleasing pop immediacy (2011 #14 here & 2012 #19 here). The EP opens with a mellow walk through the park with “Mainstream Rituals,” but then things get going with the dirtier sounding “Blood Curl,” a bitter ode to a broken relationship. “Mi Sagrado Corazon” brings back the heavy organ layers from the first track and kind of goes nowhere. But the proceedings are saved by another gritty song in “Straw Dogs.” This buzzing pop number reminds the most of the former Nature Set, but with heavy guitar work burgeoning underneath the organ lead. Its simple mid-tempo beat and repeated refrain “you never felt this way before” is instantly a winner. The proceedings close with an unlisted short instrumental ‘Summer Rituals II,” which is pretty and makes me curious what direction this band will go with their next release and if they’ll stick it out long enough to grow. If they do, I’ll be listening!
My love affair with Standard Fare was abruptly cut short in January of this year, when they announced that they were splitting after only two albums and a handful of singles (see here for 2010 #3 pick, here for 2011 #13, and here for 2012 #8). It’s so sad, because I fell so hard for their fun, energetic sound and especially Emma Kupa’s unique vocal style. Luckily, they left us with great music to listen to going forward and to remind us to wonder ‘what could have been.’ This limited edition 7” (only 300 copies!!) is their farewell to us fans. They give us what are clearly songs that didn’t make the second LP cut (Out of Sight, Out of Town), but they are still quality songs. The A-side, “Rumours” is a breezy, light on its feet strummer, with excellent guitar flourishes by the underrated Danny How. This should’ve made the last album or at least should be more widely heard. The lyrics, as always, have a natural feel, as if ripped from a diary and they tell a story that seems to allude to either a failed or unrequited past affair and the rumors and fallout that have kept these people apart for so long. Meanwhile, the quick two minutes that make up the B-Side, “Out of Sight” is clearly B material, but still a catchy little song of escape - a fitting closure for a great young band.
The Joy Formidable
Over the last three plus years my fire and love for The Joy Formidable has been substantial. Their 2009/2010 mini LP A Balloon Called Moaning and the debt full length, 2011’s The Big Roar, both became my #1 picks for those respective years (seen here & here), and the few times I’ve been lucky enough to see them perform live have been exhilarating and thrilling to say the least. This is a band that brings it and brings it consistently; maybe more than any band I’ve ever seen. Their emergence made me feel like a teenager again, when I was discovering music on my own and seeing live music for the first time. This second full length appears just after they have toured the western world multiple times gathering a substantial fan base the old fashioned way – one audience at a time – with an album full of hope. They have added diversity with a beautiful batch of slower songs (the acoustic ballad “Silent Treatment” and the timeless sounding “The Turnaround”), several orchestral touches (“This Ladder is Ours,” “Forest Serenade”) and of course a bunch of massive sounding showstoppers (“Little Blimp,” “The Leopard and the Lung”). Lyrically, they seem to be finding an amazing amount of hope, wonder and redemption with humanity, even after we continue to burn, rape and pillage the Earth and each other and their enthusiasm feels authentic and believable. Yet, for some reason, this one has not quite settled with me. I love it and have listened to it over and over, but it hasn’t captured me in the same manner. It could be that it needs a simple tweak in production or mix (maybe Andy Wallace’s metallic sheen has sucked some of the life out of their performances?), because when sprinkled into the live setting these songs fit in spectacularly with the older favorites – especially the astounding unlisted title track that closes this album now that it has been paired with the set closing blitzkrieg that is “Whirring.” Or maybe it is that the epic centerpiece “Maw Maw Song” is the first song of theirs that I don’t particularly like. Whatever the case, this is all nitpicking, because this Welsh trio is still about the most exciting band out there today.
The Black Watch
The End of When 2xCD
(Pop Culture Press)
I first encountered the black watch way back in 1993 when I happened across their 7” single “Whatever You Need” b/w “Come Inside.” I purchased it solely because it was $3 and the cover featured a nice picture of my first ever crush: Natalie Wood. Such a frivolous music fan I am, but wow – what a record! Both of those songs are among this veteran band’s best. Anyway, this started me on the current journey following them and enjoying their unbelievable consistency. This new release made me especially curious, since their 2010/11 11th album Led Zeppelin V was their best in several years (my 2011 #33 pick seen here). Bandleader John Andrew Fredrick seems revitalized ever since ex-Chills guitarist Steven Schayer has joined the group a few years back. The songs are more vibrant and memorable again, like in the 90s, when they strung together a ton of great singles and some really solid albums. The first few songs here have their skittering layered guitars bleeding with extra urgency and fire. The opening “I Don’t Feel the Same” sounds like one of their classic songs and would sound perfect on any of their albums. Meanwhile, “Meg” is their best single in eons. The cascading drums and that scratchy repetitive guitar riff build up a compelling case that Meg is pretty special (I especially like the line: “You know I go all ice cream inside”). The album loses a bit of that energetic momentum as it progresses, but the softer songs start to reveal their intricacies with repeated listens. The jaunty sounding “The Spare Side” adds a new element with a horn section, but the sound, as is often the case, belies the downer message of the words. But who cares? The bridge and song tempo shift about halfway through and it’s absolutely stunning. The Steven Schayer led closer shows, once again, that he is a really good songwriter in his own right, as “Unlistening” evokes a very powerful load of emotions atop a simple guitar line and some backwards effects. Another good album from this band and there seems to be a little more notice of their efforts this time around. Here’s hoping for 25 more years!!
This album is also packaged with essentially a free best of CD. There is a sixteen song collection that compiles songs from their 1991 sophomore LP Flowering up to the aforementioned Led Zep V. There is a lot to take in, but it proves the point: they’ve been really good for a really long time. And which songs show up? Those two from the Natalie Wood single? Why yes, they sure do. Also, while you’re busy taking in their history, pick up and read Fredrick’s recently reissued or finally issued novel The King of Good Intentions!
“Deep Wound” (download single)
New material from Swervedriver?! Huh? They’ve been touring consistently for several years now and astounding audiences by somehow being even better than they were as an active recording band in the 90s. Meanwhile, leader Adam Franklin has been consistently releasing his own really good albums (with Bolts of Melody) over the last several years. It didn’t seem like the actual Swervedriver would be new again. Yet, December has come and this previously tour only and obscure Australian import 7” (I tried to order, but it was ungodly expensive) has finally been made available via download with news of an upcoming new album. Perhaps all of the recent signs of their massive influence on so many of today’s bands have them wanting to reclaim their turf. “Deep Wound” shows no sign of rust either and seems like an ode to one of their influences by naming the song after the pre-Dinosaur Jr. hardcore band Deep Wound. Obviously, the constant touring has kept them sharp, because this song has the same white hot edge that they always had, along with Franklin’s great voice and amazing ability to write intricate guitar hooks that can be simultaneously dreamy and shredding. The b-side is a reworked version of the a-side, labeled as “Dub Wound.” It really isn’t very dubby, but definitely has a more spacious sound. It’s pretty fantastic in its own right. Cheers to a new album in 2014!