Album-art-for-After-The-End-by-Merchandise Merchandise – After The End

★★½☆☆

Merchandise’s latest LP After The End is texturally gorgeous, but wallows in the same whiney, reverb-drenched apathy as every other self-indulgent, DIY indie act circulating the internet.

It’s been two years since Merchandise released its breakthrough sophomore album Children of Desire, and at this point, the band is confident in its self-made skin. The smooth, reverb-soaked instrumentals behind Merchandise’s tunes make it easy on the ears, but literally all of After The End’s textures feel soft, warm, and comfortable. With no sonic contrast whatsoever, the album fades almost immediately into the background, where its inoffensive textures linger contently.

Now at its new home, British label 4AD, Merchandise takes advantage of amenities like engineer Gareth Jones (Depeche Mode, Interpol, Grizzly Bear), who mixed the new LP.

With upbeat acoustic guitar strums and poppy lead guitar lines, After The End displays a strong R.E.M. influence (“Enemy,” “Little Killer”). Unfortunately, Merchandise forgoes the crisp electric guitars and crystal clear vocals that intensify R.E.M.’s soft sounds.

The grittiest texture on the album appears in the slightly-distorted, low lead guitar line that opens mid-tempo rocker “Green Lady,” accompanied by Middle Eastern-sounding strings that populate the LP. These strings add a unique texture, but only truly shine on opener “Corridor,” a glittery instrumental that wouldn’t sound too out of place on an early ’70s Pink Floyd album. Merchandise’s auditory fog becomes so thick that all sincerity is lost on listeners, and since the sincerity of non-professional musicianship is the very characteristic that makes indie music so appealing, the album suffers greatly.

Hindering  After The End further, Cox’s lazily muttered vocals weaken the album’s emotional impact. When he isn’t muttering something faux-poetic under his breath, he’s howling hyperbolically like a teenage hyena stuck in perpetual puberty. Cox’s vocals are moaned with an over-exaggerated agony sure to elicit eye-rolls from even the most sympathetic listeners. Though he often doubles his vocals with well-supported falsetto lines, Cox’s diction is practically nonexistent, making his lyrics completely unintelligible.

Lyrical themes on After The End are often indistinguishable, and the phrases that do emerge arrive cheesy and overcooked.

The unpoetic, bitter lines “Oh/You’re better off back in your place/on the dark side of the moon” spoil the semi-pleasant “Looking Glass Waltz.” Cox also peppers the album with a multitude of unnecessary “yeah”s and “oh”s, following lines that weren’t particularly expressive or emotionally strenuous.

Luckily, Cox’s baritone moan and vapid lyrics don’t permeate After The End completely; the upbeat “Telephone” acts as a silver lining with its catchy, jumping bass line. Unlike most of the album, “Telephone” works in a tightly regimented structure and wastes no time wandering aimlessly through directionless acoustic guitars and glittery synths. With the clearest singing on the LP, “Telephone” also breaks Merchandise’s cycle of dreary, non-melodic vocal groans.

“Telephone” promises the most potential of any song on the record, and it only works because its music is as unashamedly poppy as its lyrics.

The self-awareness displayed on “Telephone” offers a reason to continue checking out Merchandise releases. The simple, almost childlike lyrics “I wait and I wait and I wait by the telephone/and I call and I call and I call but you don’t” present undeniable honesty, proving that the band knows the strengths of its warm, hazy sound and, if it would stop trying to romanticize its lyrics, could produce a great pop rock record.

After The End‘s beautiful soundscape loses steam after just a few tracks, and its serene haze may fare better in an EP format, with just 5-6 songs. Switching to EP format would also help Merchandise cut songs like “True Monument” and “Little Killer,” which add nothing to the band’s sound and only lengthen an already arduous album.

While After The End unveils potential for Merchandise’s soft, warm glow, most of the album consists of odd odds and ends that don’t add up to a cohesive musical statement. It’s certainly sonically comfortable—so comfortable, in fact, that most listeners will forget it’s even playing.

Merchandise – After The End tracklist:

  1. “Corridor”
  2. “Enemy”
  3. “True Monument”
  4. “Green Lady”
  5. “Life Outside The Mirror”
  6. “Telephone”
  7. “Little Killer”
  8. “Looking Glass Waltz”
  9. “After The End”
  10. “Exile and Ego”
Album-art-for-Casey-Jack-by-Casey-Jack Casey Jack – Casey Jack

★★★½☆

Casey Jack, the newest member of Rough Beast label, is an underdog musician. After a long Chicago winter of songwriting, Jack returned to his hometown of Springfield, Missouri to compile his first album. Here’s the impressive part: Jack executed the entire recording and producing process alone (with just a little help on drums.) His work holds a certain dualism that many punk rockers only hope to attain in their music: Jack’s first batch of garage-punk songs have created a sound that exudes precise attention to detail, while simultaneously upholding grungy punk rock tones. The songs are a breath of fresh air in the modern punk rock world, and Jack’s individual style of rock ‘n’ roll goes down easy on his first self-titled LP. 

The instrumentation on this album is reminiscent of a gentler, punk Ty Segall song. Every guitar sound on the album holds a strong punk quality to it, but is a bit more contained and organized than Segall and his band. Jack’s fast-moving music satisfies many punk rock qualifications, although is not as aggressive as other well-known artists’ music. The infectious grungy beats move alongside vocals that radiate an I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, but the level of badass Jack portrays is slightly underwhelming. Jack’s impact is mellow, but the album as a whole still has punk rock running through its veins and would get a crowd moshing in an instant. 

Jack claims to have an obsession with detail, but is also devoted to crafting a raw, fuzzed out energy, mimicking early punk music.

Many artists attempt to find the perfect balance between these two musical qualities, but this harmony is where Jack excels. His mixture of clean musical components and a pure punk tonality complement each other like chocolate and peanut butter. Jack takes care to make sure no instruments overpower the album’s general sound, and all the guitars keep to strict melodies, planned out like a science experiment. Jack’s voice doesn’t waver off into unscripted runs or harsh sounding cries; his vocals aren’t the kind of rock vocals that get in your face and beg for participation.

He isn’t hoarse or scream-based like other punk artists, but the energy and the way Jack carries his voice is magically still full of punk attitude.

Jack’s lyrics achieve a similar dualism. He softly sings from his heart about how he wants to soothe a girl’s “pretty little mind” and “make her feel nice,” but the next minute he’s proclaiming a grungy anthem: “I’m not in love with the modern world at all.” Although these are two very different lyric flavors, Jack’s effort to make them contrast each other really shows how far he’s willing to go to perk up his listeners’ ears.

Jack’s success in his beginner status in the current punk world is the highlight of his powerful first step into a musical career. His bravery is setting a new standard for other emerging rockers, but Jack is simply getting started.

Casey Jack – Casey Jack tracklist:

  1. “I’m Alright
  2. “Not In Love With The Modern World”
  3. “Too Far Gone”
  4. “I Won’t Wait In Line”
  5. “Cool Kids”
  6. “Stay Away”
  7. “Maybe”
  8. “Home”
  9. “Halloween2012″
  10. “Return To Sender”
  11. “Terrible Things Always Happen In 3′s”
  12. “Fall”
Album-art-for-The-Time-Has-Come-by-Cassie-Ramone Cassie Ramone – The Time Has Come

★★★☆☆

Since her time as singer of beloved (and recently defunct) indie rock outfit Vivian Girls, and member of Woodsist jangle-pop band The Babies, Cassie Ramone has stood in the shadow of her influences. Most of the press surrounding Ramone has invoked vogue subcultures like C86, Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” and the K Records DIY scene, even as she has pushed to sculpt her own singular sound. The Time Has Come, Ramone’s first solo EP is—as yet—the most undiluted document of Ramone’s songwriting talents and personality. Unfortunately, this solo designation means Ramone lacks the usual primal force of a backing band to help carry her album, but also means she’s able to include head nods to past musical traditions like doo-wop vocal harmonies and the honeyed distortion of noise pop.

Signed to new home Loglady Records, Ramone takes full advantage of a smaller label and more intimate arena. The production on The Time Has Come sounds effortless to the point these songs could have been rattled off around a comforting campfire. However, this kind of sonic intimacy reveals a hollowness in Ramone’s songwriting. Her songwriting strengths never really derived from the lyrics. In fact, most songs from Vivian Girls were obscured in such a thick coat of reverb that lyrics from whole songs were completely inaudible. In the case when lyrics were coherent, they were often just innovations on classic ’60s pop structure.

Detached from the explicitly retro musical trappings of past projects, Ramone’s songwriting feels thin, all mid-tempo noise folk songs about the yo-yo nature of her relationships and her own relentless self-loathing.

As a whole, the melodies have a lackadaisical lilt to them even as the lyrics underpinning them warn of far darker concerns.

The pastoral “Hanging On” is bathed in gleaming reverb as Ramone sings, “You keep me hanging on/What can I do/Now the love is gone.” Despite its sunny exterior, she sounds utterly hopeless pleading for a flame to take her seriously again. The charging, self-destructive “I’m A Freak” similarly luxuriates in bummer vibes.  Resembling a less twee Kimya Dawson, Ramone rages, “I’m a loser/What a fucking loser/Don’t invite me home for dinner/Because I’ll make a scene,” before climaxing with a wobbly guitar solo.

The best analog for Ramone’s musical melancholia may be California surfer girl Bethany Corsentino of Best Coast, although there’s much less talk about cats, and Ramone is much more active in her frustration with the romances in her life. These demons feel wholly more nuanced than mere self-pity though.

Viewed as a statement, the EP feels like a cohesive attempt to find personal peace and shutter her own self-destructive impulses.

Demonstrating the full impact of her past depression, the first line of the album is even “Every day I thank the lord that I’m not where I was before.”

Though the album’s melodies feel spare and stripped-down, there are still glimpses of a raucous past. “I Don’t Really Wanna Go” steadily ramps up its contemplative strum until it whips up into a brief sandstorm, and the caterwauling “Joe’s Song” jerks back and forth between a flowing guitar pattern and what sounds like a roving AM dial.

In the materials leading up to the release, Loglady Records compares Ramone’s EP to “a contemporary take on what a modern day Karen Dalton record may sound like.” It’s a misleading comparison. Dalton is an outré avant-folk/country chanteuse with a warbling voice that could only be reasonably compared with Nina Simone. Ramone is a fairly typical folk singer, but she’s narrative through her music, and the press around her has been shrouded in a way that resembles some long lost cult legend.

Ramone’s music has the feel of a hidden treasure in plain sight.

In any other era, her music would be passed around in cloistered circles in whispered tones before her influence was dutifully exaggerated decades later. Instead, Ramone can have it both ways. She’s had “mainstream indie” success with the Vivian Girls through rapturous press reception, but also built a cultural mystique that’s entirely counterintuitive to her online exposure. In the past, she’s proven to be an exceptional songwriter in reconfiguring the music of the past, but while The Time Has Come looks to solidify Ramone’s cultish appeal, it lacks either the academic/primal rewards of Vivian Girls or the songwriting insight to make a lasting impact.

Cassie Ramone - The Time Has Come tracklist:

  1. “Song of Love”
  2. “The Time Has Come”
  3. “Joe’s Song”
  4. “I’m A Freak”
  5. “Hanging On”
  6. “I Don’t Really Wanna Go”
  7. “Sensitive Soul”
  8. “I Send My Love To You”
Album-art-for-You-Can-Do-Better-by-Johnny-Foreigner Johnny Foreigner – You Can Do Better

★★★★☆

American punk bands may have hit a dead end attempting to modernize the genre, but Birmingham, England’s raging punk quartet Johnny Foreigner breaks new ground with its fourth LP, You Can Do Better.

Though the album may sound like a screaming mess at first, it harbors hidden value for those who listen a second or third time. With blaring guitars and bratty vocal tones, the album’s noisy, distorted speed signals a traditionalist punk band, but Johnny Foreigner’s intellectual take on punk experiments further. Dynamic songwriting, poetic lyrics, and a total refusal to comply with punk’s musical standards proves that when looking for original, creative punk in the 2010′s, it really doesn’t get better than Johnny Foreigner.

While the role of lead vocalist splits evenly between guitarist Alexei Berrow and bassist Kelly Southern, the role of bombastic-but-talented punk outfit is played by all.

Drummer Junior Elvis Washington Laidley plays complex, syncopated rhythms throughout, separating Johnny Foreigner from the downbeat-heavy rhythms that often homogenize and limit punk music.

Laidley’s explosive playing opens You Can Do Better, and the purposefully messy tone continues throughout. While many punk groups might stick to this loud-and-fast feel exclusively, Johnny Foreigner instead displays its ear for dynamic contrast with the quiet, reserved first verse of album-opener “Shipping.” Two ex-lovers discuss a mutual dependance on their already-over relationship, but “Shipping” goes beyond typical, bitter breakup songs. The track broadens the horizons of punk’s bitterness with poetic lyrics, such as “I will carry your baggage/A trail of lost luggage/An endless line of lives left lacking and waiting to be worthy.”

In another lyrical departure, Berrow sneaks the cryptic lines of “In Capitals” into punk rock’s in-your-face atmosphere. “Somebody call an ambulance,” Berrow and Southern beg together, “I just murdered a party/but don’t tell me that romance is dead, too.” Presenting both the best and worst of Southern, “In Capitals” exposes not only her melodic, agile bass lines, but also her lack of vocal training (she often needs to slide into pitches to find their center). Southern’s bass prowess makes itself apparent, and while her vocals may be pitchy, they don’t disrupt You Can Do Better‘s regret-fueled mood.

Still, Johnny Foreigner’s most potent fuel lies in its desire to distance itself from its peers. Unlike many traditional punk groups who favor strict verse-chorus structures, Johnny Foreigner explores fresher ground in “Riff Glitchard.” The track opens with a beautifully picked, resonant guitar figure joined by drums that stagger at first, but quickly find their sea-legs and lead the song into a quick but smooth groove. By the time a guttural bass enters, it’s clear “Riff Glitchard” defies punk’s structural standards.

The 2-minute instrumental section that opens “Riff Glitchard” is one of four sections that make up Johnny Foreigner’s best constructed and most dynamic number.

Leading the tune into the next section, Southern sings softly but powerfully over a light, echoey guitar strum. In the third section, the intro’s instrumental returns, this time with more gusto, preparing for the chaotic coda. The song’s expansive build and 5-minute length make it a standout, but its most pleasant surprise is Southern’s vocal performance, which details the heartbreaking story of a pilot searching for a lover lost at sea and rings clearly in-tune throughout the track.

Once Johnny Foreigner reaches album-closer “Devastator,” the band has abandoned punk completely. In a possible nod to Pink Floyd, a heart-like throbbing sound concludes  “Devastator” and connects it to “To The Deaf,” a secret bonus track.

Over a deliberately fingerpicked, clean electric guitar, Berrow and Southern sing “To The Deaf” in cautious unison, like a musically competent version of the Moldy Peaches. In yet another surprise, a sudden “1-2-3″ count off brings in a colorful display of happy horns, leaving listeners with one last reminder that Johnny Foreigner cannot be predicted.

Though it rumbles with the speed, distortion and instrumentation of traditional punk rock, Johnny Foreigner pushes punk’s boundaries boldly. And since that boldness employs poetic lyrics and an ear for dynamics, you can’t do much better than You Can Do Better.

Johnny Foreigner – You Can Do Better tracklist:

  1. “Shipping”
  2. “Le Sigh”
  3. “In Capitals”
  4. “Riff Glitchard”
  5. “The Last Queens of Scotland”
  6. “Stop Talking About Ghosts”
  7. “WiFi Beach”
  8. “To The Death”
  9. “Le Schwing”
  10. “Devastator/To The Deaf”
Album-art-for-You-Will-Eventually-Be-Forgotten-by-Empire!-Empire!-(-I-Was-A-Lonely-Estate-) Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) – You Will Eventually Be Forgotten

★★★★☆

Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate,) the husband/wife duo’s latest album You Will Eventually Be Forgotten is packed with songs standard to the emo revival genre. The unique approach taken to create You Will Eventually Be Forgotten results in a hauntingly compelling album. However, despite the album’s ability to capture its audience’s attention, the way the verses are broken up becomes distracting and diminishes the quality of otherwise good songs.

There are a lot of odd aspects in You Will Eventually Be Forgotten. Throughout the 11-track album, not one song contains a chorus, but is instead heavily verse based, which isn’t a typical approach taken by artists and producers. It works for Empire! Empire! (I Was  a Lonely Estate,) because not only are its tracks scaled back lyrically, but musically as well. Keith Latinen is very nearly a one-man-band who sings, plays the guitar, bass, drums, and cello heard on the album, save for the occasional guitar playing his wife Cathy contributes. The focus of the album is more on vocals, Latinen heard crooning word after word, with only slight emphasis on instrumentals.

Whether intentional or due to the limited individuals contributing to the production of You Will Eventually Be Forgotten, the album contains very basic playing.

No impressive guitar riffs or thundering drums can be heard, but extra noise isn’t really needed for the impact intended. The lyrics, literally, do all the talking while the music complements what’s being sung. Despite each track seeming more like journal entries sung aloud, what’s being said appeals to its listeners, drawing them in and creating an emotional experience.

An untraditional story of love and Latinen’s wedding day, track opener “Ribbon” weaves a chilling tale that captures listeners’ attention immediately when Latinen sings, “I nearly lost you/on our wedding day/It was early afternoon/and you were leaving lunch with your best friend/When your vehicle careened/into an SUV/As it turned out in front of you/Violently flinging you/into the waiting air bag.” It continues with his wife walking down the aisle glowing, despite the bruising from the crash.

While a song or two are dedicated to their relationship, You Will Eventually Be Forgotten has more songs dealing with Latinen’s childhood and people involved in his past.

“Foxfire,” addresses atheism, blaming the bible thumpers shoving scripture down peoples’ throats for the final push to the belief. Four songs later, “It’s So Much Darker When A Light Goes Out,” starts off reminiscing about his grandparents 50th anniversary, but ends chillingly when he sings, “Do you know how/Two trees can grow/as one/When my grandmother died/My grandfather/died too/It took/two whole years/to convince his body/to let him go.”

Traditional clearly isn’t Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate)’s approach.

Each song is more of an auditory story, captivating its listeners more intensely than artists have been conditioned to in the past. However, despite the quality of the lyrics and the simplicity of the music, the way the verses are broken up distracts and draws out songs to an overdone extent.

While perhaps an aesthetic decision, Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) needs to recognize when a song should be broken up and when it shouldn’t. Knowing that line would improve the quality of the duo’s work, because the lyrics, while approached differently, possess the captivating quality needed to transfix listeners time after time.

Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) – You Will Eventually Be Forgotten tracklist:

  1. “Ribbon”
  2. “I Was Somewhere Cold, Dark … and Lonely”
  3. “We Are People Here. We Are Not Numbers.”
  4. “A Keepsake”
  5. “You Have to Be So Much Better than You Ever Thought”
  6. “Stay Divided”
  7. “Foxfire”
  8. “Things Not Worth Fixing”
  9. “If It’s Bad News, It Can Wait”
  10. “It’s So Much Darker When a Light Goes Out than It Would Have Been If It Had Never Shone”
  11. “The Promise That Life Can Go on No Matter How Bad Our Losses”
Album-art-for-Benjamin-Booker-by-Benjamin-Booker Benjamin Booker – Benjamin Booker

★★★½☆

Not unlike the skeleton featured on his album artwork, 24 year-old New Orleans blues rocker Benjamin Booker holds up a raw, unpolished depiction of himself on his self-titled debut, promising (and delivering) an honest, unapologetically coarse LP.

Booker’s booked himself a full schedule this year. He’s already toured with Courtney Barnett and Drive By Truckers, played Letterman before even announcing his first album, and plans to release the album the same week he begins opening for Jack White.

Haste isn’t just part of Booker’s business plan, it’s in his very nature. Largely influenced by the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll sound, the majority of the album is propelled by lightning-fast bend riffs and racing drums. Booker’s manic ruckus rages furiously throughout the LP, most notably on the relentless “Have You Seen My Son.” Toward the end of the song, Booker’s sprinting rock hits top speed but stubbornly refuses to let up, resulting in a gnarly crash-and-burn. Fortunately, this wreck is the only time Booker loses control.

An attentive student, Booker’s voice warbles with the defeated, impassioned cry of the ’30s bluesmen who inspired the ’50s rockers who inspired Booker.

Booker understands the basic 12-bar blues structure and uses it to his advantage, bridging the generation gap by placing the modern world’s troubles in the music of the past. His thick, rich tones sound most like the tortured moans of his heroes on “Slow Coming,” so strikingly you might think Robert Johnson had accidentally wandered into the 21st century. Lamenting a slow coming future where “the state decides true love,” Booker admits, “To tell you the truth, I ain’t been sleepin’ too well.”

His rough, scratchy voice whispers spookily on Benjamin Booker’s quieter numbers and screeches menacingly on louder ones. His quivering vocals make perfect sense in his unstoppable rockers (“Violent Shiver,” “Wicked Waters”), but begin to fall flat more and more frequently during the second half of the album (“Happy Homes,” “Old Hearts”). Booker’s rambled vocals are often difficult to distinguish, but his pained howl gets the point across.

His confident rasp is both organic and exciting, and creates a primal atmosphere on an album where anything goes.

Despite that opportunity, Booker sticks to a basic rock instrumentation. This textural traditionalism works as both a gift and a curse; it solidifies Booker’s rocker credibility, but its repetitive nature prevents his emotional palette from expanding beyond blistering bursts of energy. These uncontrollable bursts don’t even allow room for an acoustic guitar until the folky closer “By The Evening.”

Acoustic instruments may not surface until the end, but softer moments do occur along the way. ”Spoon Out My Eyeballs” begins with a light guitar strum, over which Booker whispers a melodically folky verse. Allowing the first glimpse of a human Booker, the verse once again bemoans the modern world with sighed lines like “Now when I listen to the radio/I find love songs written by 40-year olds.” Unlike other Booker tunes, drums don’t rush the song when they enter. Instead, the drums augment the song’s melancholy second verse with a more pleasant, accessible tempo. Inevitably, the song’s third verse returns Booker to his overly rushed style.

Booker structured “Spoon Out My Eyeballs” not according to its lyrics, but according to its various tempos. Instead of relying on catchy choruses or ear-worm hooks, Booker crafts tunes around rudimentary elements like tempo and dynamics. These cunning constructions prove his mania is fueled by a deep understanding of musical mechanics.

In another refreshing, unhurried moment, a pleasant, clean guitar figure drives “I Thought I Heard You Screaming,” which is ironically the only Booker tune without a hasty, violent eruption. Exposing his wounded blues soul again, Booker moans, “It’s a lonely walk/…/You ain’t seen no love since that man walked out your door.” Emotive and defeated, “I Thought I Heard You Screaming” shows Booker’s skills as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, making it the most rewarding song on the album.

A few loose bolts are apparent on Benjamin Booker’s self-titled debut, but the good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll record accomplishes all its goals. Presenting an undoubtedly original, unPhotoshopped picture of Booker’s potent blues influence and rare songwriting talent, Benjamin Booker arrives just in time for his Jack White dates.

Benjamin Booker – Benjamin Booker tracklist:

  1. “Violent Shiver”
  2. “Always Waiting”
  3. “Chippewa”
  4. “Slow Coming”
  5. “Wicked Waters”
  6. “Have You Seen My Son”
  7. “Spoon Out My Eyeballs”
  8. “Happy Homes”
  9. “I Thought I Heard You Screaming”
  10. “Old Hearts”
  11. “Kids Never Growing Older”
  12. “By The Evening”
Album-art-for-Sand+Silence-by-The-Rosebuds The Rosebuds – Sand + Silence

★★★½☆

Two divorcees, Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp, make up indie-rock duo The Rosebuds. Surprisingly, Howard and Crisp’s musical partnership has grown even stronger post-divorce and has added to both the structural and melodic success of the band’s sixth upcoming album Sand + Silence.

With a helpful collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon during the creation and production process, the team has shaped the music into something almost spiritual. The shockingly organized, natural flow of the album stems from the longtime intimate partnership Howard and Crisp have cultivated throughout their musical and personal involvement. Their years of constant collaboration are showcased so each song contrasts its predecessor, which keeps the listening interesting. 

A well-balanced combination of charmingly cute and grayish melancholy, Sand + Silence leaves every track with its own distinctive attribute to set it apart from the rest.

There’s a melody-centric element found on this album that is apparent after just one listen. Every song has its own particular ring that makes it feel like Howard and Crisp are dying for you to reassuringly let them know that yes, you do remember this song. The duo’s indie folk-rock sound weaves together energetic sounds of graceful intensity and a natural fluidity that’s found when making music with friends.

The charm on this album simulates something off an Avett Brothers or Guster album. Howard and Crisp are totally in-sync, which allures listeners to notice this duo has something other duos simply can’t capture (and remember, they’re divorced). A steady percussion serves as a backdrop to the bumping piano, guitar, and occasional tambourine timbres. These songs are the kinds of songs worth learning on the guitar to showcase at an open mic night. It’s as if the pure melodies are mathematically calculated to hold a certain catchiness that’s enough to make listeners skip backwards.

Considering Howard and Crisp’s split, the romance emanating during some tracks is notably odd.

“Blue Eyes” is a blissful, lovey-dovey serenade that might be found in the happy montages of a romantic flick. Even more adorable is the subsequent track “Mine Mine,” which captures the ambience of a first date through tinkling xylophone and tambourine. Both these tracks seem to hold an untamable excitement, but the progression of their individual melodies stays under control. The Rosebuds aren’t experimental or wild in the music on this album, but that isn’t a bad thing considering how structurally perfect the songs are—the duo takes care to keep its melodies inside the lines. 

When the sounds become less bubbly, tracks like “Esse Quam Videri” emerge in bittersweet glory. Howard’s angst-ridden vocals proclaim “It’s tattooed on my forearm so it’s not forgotten/And I remember where I’m from or where I’m going.”

The album’s title track, too, keeps a dark, minor sound, and is an anthem of confused fear by the time it approaches the refrain.

The final track “Tiny Bones” is Howard and Crisp’s way of leaving their own unique mark—it sounds like it’s being performed in the middle of a moonlit forest. In fact, the song was actually recorded in the woods outside of Justin Vernon’s April Base Studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. This song’s relaxing campfire-like vibe seemingly has the potential to teleport listeners to the forest, and it gets even more realistic when sounds of the beginning of a rainstorm are captured at the end of the woodland song.

This isn’t The Rosebuds’ first time delivering an album, but Sand + Silence shows the duo’s meticulous talents ironically through carefree sounds. The two put aside their differences for this sixth album, and have truly expressed their combined artistry through sweet music. They keep their incredible crafting skills humble and under the rug of their lovely, harmonious songs, but stay strongly memorable to adoring listeners.

The Rosebuds – Sand + Silence tracklist:

  1. “In My Teeth”
  2. “Sand + Silence”
  3. “Give Me A Reason”
  4. “Blue Eyes”
  5. “Mine Mine Mine”
  6. “Wait A Minute”
  7. “Esse Quam Videri”
  8. “Death Of An Old Bike”
  9. “Looking For”
  10. “Walking”
  11. “Tiny Bones”
Album-art-for-Chrome-Cactus-by-The-Young The Young – Chrome Cactus

★★☆☆☆

The Young had every opportunity to push past the psychedelic vibe of debut album Dub Egg by trying for a darker, rockier feel for its second album. Any attempts would have worked had the songs been comprehendible, but the failing blame can be set on singer Hans Zimmerman, who mumbles through 10-tracks with heavy musical backing.

Chrome Cactus is alive, musically. Every song ripples with powerful guitar, drum, and bass combinations. Album opener “Metal Flake” refuses to hold back the heavier tone, which is obvious from the sounds of reverberating guitars and pounding drums. The feel instantly separates The Young from Dub Egg, and the good stuff continues throughout a majority of the album with the presence of all three major instruments. Drummer Ryan Maloney, bassist Lucas Wedow, and guitarists Zimmerman and Kyle Edwards, scale back enough to produce two tracks (“Apaches Throat,” and “Mercy”) comparable to slow jams with electric guitar and bass.

A good vocalist in combination with the bulky background instrumentation would give the outcome intended.

However, the album translates as chaotic and incomprehensible due to Zimmerman’s slurred mumbles. Problems understanding lyrics make it difficult to tell whether The Young is anything more than a band of talented composers.  Zimmerman’s voice is so challenging to decipher that the guitar, drum, and bass are put in the spotlight more so than the lyrics. Listeners shouldn’t have to have a song on repeat in order to kinda, sorta get what’s being said. Doing so frustrates even loyal listeners, who had to deal with similar and quieter mumbling in Dub Egg, and prevents any new fans from latching onto the band.

During the rare moments of understandable lyrics, it’s obvious there are messages the band is trying to get across to its listeners, whether it be standard political agenda messages (“Metal Flake”), or messages concerning the struggle of one’s inner demon (“Mercy.”) Despite these meanings, while admirable, the songs are vague and seem to lack the spark needed to propel Chrome Cactus past other rock bands. This blandness is showcased when Zimmerman sings, “Moments never last/they keep changing as I grasp/… I feel pretty good/in the moment/even though I talk it out/I smash my head against the wall,” continuing through the rest of the song in the same lukewarm style.

The song about some messed-up love story, “Apache Throat,” becomes one of the few tracks on the album that stays on topic as it progresses. It begins with Zimmerman wailing, “Every situation plays a thousand times/repeat the ending for me when I say goodbye/I’m noticing that you aren’t the one that I might thought you were/and it’s my fault/I’m to blame for changing you.” Clearly about a relationship that held some significance in the past, this kind of clarity is the factor that propels songs on Chrome Cactus beyond other tracks.

Most other songs aren’t as straightforward as “Apache Throat,” instead becoming muddled and confusing to comprehend. What starts off as bashing on the pretentiousness of the rich and powerful in “Moondog First Quarter,” turns into an exploration of why one feels sinister. Zimmerman is incoherent most of the song, making it difficult to really pinpoint what is being said.  Bits and pieces can be heard like, “Split the rich from the high life/…. understanding nothing/except what I’m told,” and the repeating three line chorus, “feel/so sinister.”

Other than small sections of lyrics, the whole of the song is lost, which isn’t the experience The Young intends for listeners.

Zimmerman is a difficult vocalist to hear and understand, that’s evident in Chrome Cactus and it’s pertinent The Young tackle the problem in order to maintain and secure new fans.  If its listeners can’t understand what’s being sung, they’re going to get bored and annoyed and find another rock band to obsess over and support. Praise should be spewing out about The Young because Maloney, Wedow, and Edwards know how to use their instruments. They know when the drums should be reverberating over the clashing of guitars and bass, and when to combine the three together to create a sound that says more about the message of the song than the lyrics.

The Young has the potential to be a great rock band. Addressing the issue of clarity, while continuing to allow Maloney, Wedow, and Edwards to play as they do on Chrome Cactus could change the game for The Young.

The Young - Chrome Cactus tracklist:

  1. “Metal Flake”
  2. “Cry of Tin”
  3. “Chrome Jamb”
  4. “Moondog First Quarter”
  5. “Apaches Throat”
  6. “Mercy”
  7. “Ramona Cruz”
  8. “Dressed in Black”
  9. “Slow Death”
  10. “Blow the Scum Away”
Album-art-for-Self-titled-by-It-Looks-Sad. It Looks Sad. – It Looks Sad.

★★★☆☆

Whether it’s a weathered band releasing a stopgap release between proper LPs, or a new band trying to get its name out, EPs serve as a thankless option. More so than a full-length LP, an EP needs to be a mission statement—an encapsulation of the sound, ethos, and even the personalities of individual band members.

Promising North Carolina four-piece, It Looks Sad.’s new self-titled EP showcases a band that can’t decide whether it wants to worship at the altar of its influences or sculpt a new direction for shimmering indie rock. There’s a band here that isn’t afraid to cross genre boundaries and change how jangly, reverb-heavy indie rock is viewed, but It Looks Sad. is trapped by a fealty to tradition, resembling the countless bands over the past few years with “beach” in the name.

Released on blossoming North Carolina imprint, Tiny Engines, It Looks Sad. doesn’t cleanly align with anthemic emo bands like The Hotelier and Somos that define the label. Though Tiny Engines has become one of the satellite labels of the so-called emo revival, It Looks Sad. prefers the glassy, bleached sounds of bands like Real Estate and The Drums to the jaggedly pretty harmonies of Braid or American Football.

A dozen bands pop up weekly with spindly guitars and cavernous bass, but It Looks Sad. is too ambitious to intentionally settle as another reverb-drenched beach band. The self-titled EP has a slapdash quality and is undeniably the work of a band finding its voice, but It Looks Sad. has already found its way to sharply luminous guitar lines and more significantly, lyrics that anchor a heaviness to familiar material.

Speaking to North Carolina-based entertainment site Creative Loafing, singer Will Turner admitted opening track “Radical” was hurriedly written to fill an opening set for Cursive’s Tim Kasher.

The news is surprising, as “Radical” is the most structurally thoughtful track on this set.

Beginning with pleasantly placid strumming and a gliding harmony, “Radical” defines itself during a unexpected bridge. Drums and guitars double into a joyful battle cry and singer Jimmy Turner not only ignores the songs lilting vocal melody up until that point, but also upends it to lead into a galloping ending, foreshadowing a far more adventurous band. Throughout the EP are glimpses of a band that doesn’t stoop to cliches of the genre. Whether it’s abruptly changing tempos, adding post-hardcore harmonies, or detouring into chaotic bridges, these moments are the most thrilling of the album.

“Fingers” is more contemplative, a slyly anxious story of romantic butterflies and accompanying goosebumps.

Submerged in murky reverb, “Fingers” jerks from hesitant fingerpicking to cascading riffing, echoing the lyric’s ambiguity between reality and a dream state. Turner sings, “I tell you all the time/I felt your fingers touch my skin.” The song overstays its welcome by a good minute, but it also successfully creates an edgy tone in ways that surpass the band’s peers.

Ending track “Ocean” mirrors the nocturnal energy of “Fingers” with a loud/soft/loud dynamic. Beginning with a calmly swirling riff before a crashing post-punk chorus and screamed vocals, “Ocean” is a window into a more unpredictable and visceral version of the band.

It Looks Sad. too often resembles its influences.

Turner and the band bring a sense of immediacy to the album when it threatens to dissipate into rudderless strumming, but ultimately it all lacks shape, or is specifically too shapely. Unlike the geometric noodling of Real Estate or the pointillist bass lines of Beach Fossils, It Looks Sad. is at its best when they’re subverting the usual tidiness and order of the genre.

The most exciting parts of It Looks Sad.’s EP have nothing to do with the band’s faithful emulation of the assumed sound of indie rock. These rare thrilling moments occur when the band disregards expectations and melds the coiled tightness of its influences with its own untethered acidity.

It Looks Sad. – Self-titled tracklist:

  1. “Radical”
  2. “Fingers”
  3. “Raccoon”
  4. “Ocean”
Album-art-for-Blind-and-Brave-by-The-Wild-Reeds The Wild Reeds – Blind and Brave

★★★½☆

California band The Wild Reeds smoothly integrates into the world of folk rock with its first full-length album Blind and Brave. Though displaying a plethora of talent, the former-trio-turned-five-person band produces an album just fine to listen to—but when the band’s peers are willing to experiment and shock listeners with innovative ideas, just fine won’t cut it and success isn’t soon to follow.

Fundamentally, there’s nothing wrong with Blind and Brave. The use of banjo, guitar, and drums throughout the album coexist with the lyrics, one never overshadowing the other. The instruments crescendo when songs are coming to their last, and seemingly most important verse, drawing attention to vocalists Kinsey Lee, Sharon Silva, and Mackenzie Howe’s crooning, and diminish when needed.  Though clearly comfortable with the sounds standard to folk rock, The Wild Reeds only expand beyond the genre’s sound once in 10 tracks. During this insubstantial nudge at the confines of the genre the band makes use of its three frontwomen’s vocal range; an ethereal sound calls out in “Judgment,” which integrates throughout the entirety of the song, cementing it in listeners’ minds.

The Wild Reeds have the potential to be more than another folk rock band.

The band’s sound is soothing and inviting for listeners seeking a soundtrack to cruise around to on a sunny afternoon or experience nostalgic flashbacks of the simplicity of home. Lyrically, some variety has to occur to avoid the cliché feel most albums within folk rock unsatisfactorily fall into. Songs about love (“Let No Greif,” “Foreigner,” “Of All the Dreams,” “Love Letter”) and going against the grain of a small town (“Blind and Brave,” “Lock and Key) are crowd pleasers. The subjects are what listeners continue to relate to regardless of how many times they’ve heard different variations of the same topic. However, continuing to produce similar songs will not only hinder The Wild Reeds’ progression as artists, but effectively keep its fan base limited to locals, bored college students, and supportive family members.

The only time the raw talent The Wild Reeds possess is materialized is during “Recongize,” a song that starts off like every other unrequited love song.

It begins with the woe is me, why won’t he notice me, what can I do so he can see what he’s missing type of crap we often hear in T-Swizzle songs. Unknowing listeners be warned something surprising happens during the last 30 seconds of the song. Having sat through six love songs prior, listeners might just skip the track before the “magic” happens. Lee, Silva, and Howe begin with some yearning and puke-worthy lyrics as they harmonize, “He doesn’t see me in a crowd/so I will change his view/And if he only sees with his eyes/Then I will make him recognize the truth/…As I walk around with my heart racing/I will look for him like he’s all I need.” The trio continues on a harmonizing rant, questioning what it is they need to do to gain the acknowledgement of someone special, but showcases bona fide, enchanting vocal talent.

Any hope the band had of singling themselves out as a serious, innovative folk rock band is nearly decimated until the girls wail, “Ain’t it a girl’s way of messin’ up her pride/Ain’t it a woman’s way of making it on the outside/well it ain’t right/it ain’t right/I will not agree to follow him/She cannot agree to follow him while she’s blinded/I will not agree to follow him from behind.” The sudden twist provides a refreshing break from the endless songs churned out on the album with little difference in sound or theme.

Though the band does generally stick to stereotypical folk rock songs, it’s not to say The Wild Reeds hasn’t seemingly mastered the feel-good love song.

“Love Letter” emanates first love from the strumming of the banjo, to the sticky-sweet tone Lee, Silva, and Howe adopt as they sing, “Too see if I’ll have courage/to send you all my soul/I wrote my first love letter/now I can’t seem to let it go.”

The Wild Reeds has found what works for its target-audience and are unwilling to produce anything experimental for fear of shocking listeners. Getting past that comfort level The Wild Reeds has developed for itself will be the determining factor in the band’s future success.

The Wild Reeds - Blind and Brave tracklist:

  1. “Where I’m Going”
  2. “Let No Greif”
  3. “Blind and Brave”
  4. “Foreigner”
  5. “Of All The Dreams”
  6. “Love Letter”
  7. “Judgment”
  8. “When I Go”
  9. “Recognize”
  10. “Lock and Key”
Album-art-for-The-Voyager-by-Jenny-Lewis Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

★★★½☆

The Voyager, Jenny Lewis’ first solo record in six years, is haunted by history. Among mentions of Daisy Age partying, bohemian flings, and space age relic Voyager 1, Lewis uses both her own memories and the collective past to move forward. She ruminates on hard-won wisdom, arrested adulthood, and the confusion of being exactly where she wants to be even if it’s not exactly where she should be.

Lewis has had a smooth transition from ringleader of indie rock group Rilo Kiley to solo artist, but she has never dealt more explicitly with feelings of loss than on The Voyager. Reportedly written during debilitating bouts of insomnia, and influenced by her father’s death, Lewis’ usual wittiness is laced with a newfound melancholy. The Voyager is a window into Lewis’ headspace, a place that brims with idealism, but has just as easily been wounded by that same enthusiasm and ensuing recklessness.

Sad-sack troubadour Ryan Adams takes over production duties for the first time and serves as an ideal match for Lewis.

Adams simultaneously brings shagginess and scope to the record, adding classic rock touches and glossy new wave hallmarks to evoke the technicolor excess of ’70s touchstones like Rumours and Who’s Next.

“She’s Not Me” draws the most explicit line between Lewis and the past with its warbling vocals, svelte backbeat, and left-of-the-dial guitar solo. With an atomic intensity, Lewis recalls Tusk-era Stevie Nicks as she wrestles a love/hate relationship with an ex and her feelings about his new marriage.

Bubblegum new wave song “Love U Forever” likewise basks in the glow of the late ’70s and ’80s with sun-baked guitars and a dangerously catchy chorus ideal for the soundtrack to a lost John Hughes movie. Some of the music Lewis emulates here (The Cars, Huey Lewis, Modern English) can occasionally come across as narratively trite, but Lewis repeatedly shows that she can swoon without losing her head.

The balance of sweet and sour is especially seen in “Aloha & The Three Johns” as Lewis swings from relationship pet peeves to more serious doubts over a slinking surf guitar and stomping Tom Petty power chords. The song even includes the album’s best thesis statement as Lewis sings, “Is this the beginning of expectation? Or is this the end of our vacation?”

It’s to Lewis’ credit that she’s able to juggle and synthesize all of these disparate influences into a cohesive whole.

The album moves from propulsive new wave to groggy folk without ever losing momentum, but Lewis has difficulty balancing her lyrical concerns. The recurring tension in the songwriting saves most of the album’s moments that lean toward preciousness or smugness, but hero worship does occasionally overwhelm Lewis’ distinctive songwriting.

“Late Bloomer” starts strong with diaristic detail of a regretful menage a trois, but transitions clumsily into a chorus that strives for the grittiness of Tom Waits or Bob Dylan, but lacks the conviction or menace to lend the story its necessary gravity.

Lewis’ decision to pepper historical references throughout the album ranges from misguided to cringeworthy.

The references seem to be Lewis’ attempt to ground the album in some universal context, but it’s ultimately more gimmicky than anything else.

“The New You’s” rambling fingerpicking positively recalls The La’s “There She Goes” and a more pop-indebted Wilco, but a tone deaf conflation of 9/11 and a midlife crisis nearly bring the song to a stand-still. The gorgeously drowsy title track feels weighty as well using the real life Voyager as a vantage point until it lapses into murky philosophizing. Even the aforementioned highlight, “Love U Forever” makes an unnecessary digression into ’70s ephemera for no reason other than a slant rhyme.

Musical ghosts of the ’70s and ’80s loom over the album’s sound as tracks recall everything from Prince to Fleetwood Mac to Joni Mitchell, but Lewis isn’t only indulging in her influences’ sounds, she’s evoking something stronger—the weight of the past and reconfiguring those admirations with her own personal struggles and worries. In the process, she’s paradoxically created one of the most musically vibrant and emotionally tumultuous albums of the year.

Jenny Lewis – The Voyager tracklist:

  1. “Head Underwater”
  2. “She’s Not Me”
  3. “Just One of the Guys”
  4. “Slippery Slopes”
  5. “Late Bloomer”
  6. “You Can’t Outrun ‘Em”
  7. “The New You”
  8. “Aloha & the Three Johns”
  9. “Love U Forever”
  10. “The Voyager”
Album-art-for-Mediumship-by-Dikembe Dikembe – Mediumship

★★★½☆

The album artwork may resemble an LSD-soaked version of Where The Wild Things Are, but Mediumship, the second LP from Florida rock quartet Dikembe, is neither hallucinogenic, nor wild.

Instead, it exists somewhere in between, where grunge feels invigorating again and overplayed groups like Nirvana and Mudhoney do more influencing than genre-defining. Dikembe breathes new life into ’90s grunge by successfully recreating its raw emotionality and playing its tricky rhythms tightly as a unit; the band dutifully lays the groundwork for grunge with primal, distorted guitar figures and passionately self-defeating lyrics, but takes the liberty of adding multilayered guitar textures, unusual rhythmic patterns, and crystal-clear audio quality.

The band makes a habit of quickly transitioning from vulnerably relaxed guitar-led grooves to downbeat-heavy sonic explosions (“Even Bother,” “Hood Rat Messiah”). Initially, this seems like an impressive compositional move, but loses steam with frequent use.

Though it sticks to a traditional vocals-guitar-bass-drums setup, Dikembe delivers a fully realized grunge record; these four are the only tools necessary to modernize the genre.

And of the four, the drums play the most vital role in Dikembe’s rhythm-centric, dynamics-governed style. Drummer David Bell’s fills release a bombastic energy into each song, simultaneously mimicking a given guitar riff. Bell’s ear for off-beat rhythms, like the syncopated chorus of “Donuts In A Six Speed,” and ability to create melodies on his drum kit, like the wandering, super-chilled groove that introduces “Snakes In My Path,” are constant perks to Mediumship.

Another perk is Dikembe’s close-knit chemistry. The band thunders through its syncopated songs as a compact unit, executing complex rhythmic patterns in unison with sharp precision.

Sadly, Dikembe’s vocals aren’t executed as precisely. Singer Steven Gray’s unintelligible moans prevent many Mediumship songs from successfully communicating their meaning. During a whined verse of the blaring “Las Vegas Weather,” Gray scratchily croons, “I came to God with a plea/’Let’s put our two heads together/and make a man out of me’/and he said…” But God’s reply remains a mystery, because the chorus launches Gray back into his indecipherable screech. Containing Mediumship‘s least distinguishable vocals and most clearly sung lines, “Las Vegas Weather” presents listeners with the full spectrum of Gray’s vocal abilities.

While Gray’s sloppy diction prevails, a handful of recognizable themes emerge, such as a general lack of safety (“Hood Rat Messiah”), struggle (“Donuts In A Six Speed”), and admissions of guilt (“Gets Harder”).

Its themes may vary, but the majority of Mediumship suffers from dull predictability. Many of Dikembe’s haphazard guitar licks center around the same heavy rhythm, preventing tracks from standing out.

Closer “Throw Lips” keeps on par with Mediumship‘s cookie-cutter gang of thrashing guitar riffs, but doesn’t add anything to Dikembe’s sound or offer much as a closer. By the end of Mediumship, listeners are already familiar with Dikembe’s writing tools, from slurred lyrics and clean electric guitars to overpowering anvils of distortion that flatten them. A single guitar lingers at the tail end of “Throw Lips,” lightly strumming the album to a serene close. This ending doesn’t match the preceding LP’s anguish, but offers a ray of hope for listeners who feel Gray’s pain, whatever that pain may be.

For all its groaned vocals and typical guitar licks, the band recognizes and compensates for its faults; at just over 30 minutes long, Mediumship doesn’t overstay its welcome. Dikembe’s crisply recorded grunge update spends only the time necessary to accomplish its sonic goals, and promptly leaves afterward.

Despite its imperfections, Mediumship is a pretty damn good jam.

Dikembe’s members aren’t just jamming on grunge for the hell of it, they’re avid fans. This dedication fuels Mediumship, most apparently on the raging “Pelican Fly,” which proudly displays a relentless, dissonant chord progression based on its jarring intro riff. The song’s excited haste makes no secret of the band’s personal connection to grunge, and that passion makes “Pelican Fly” the most enjoyable of Mediumship‘s 10 rockers.

By passionately performing its modernized grunge with clean guitars and powerfully syncopated rhythms, Dikembe deliberately resurrects an almost-forgotten style with a vengeance. The band’s sheer love for the raw music it plays carries Mediumship, and proves to be a contagious fever.

Dikembe – Mediumship tracklist:

  1. “Even Bother”
  2. “Hood Rat Messiah”
  3. “Pelican Fly”
  4. “Las Vegas Weather”
  5. “Snakes In My Path”
  6. “24 Karats”
  7. “Mad Frustrated”
  8. “Donuts In A Six Speed”
  9. “Gets Harder”
  10. “Throw Lips”