Album-art-for-Conversations-by-Woman's-Hour Woman’s Hour – Conversations

★★★★☆

When singer Fiona Burgess began naming her London-based electro-pop quartet’s demos after various BBC Radio programs, she didn’t expect Woman’s Hour to become the official band name.

In fact, unexpectedness and relentless unorthodoxy define both Burgess’ writing and her group’s debut LP Conversations. With highly emotive lyrics, innovative songwriting, and monochrome performance art-inspired music videos, Woman’s Hour gives challenging art accessibility and mainstream potential.

Mirroring the band’s black-and-white aesthetic, Conversations flashes back and forth between bouncy, confident relationship analyses (“In Stillness We Remain”) and soft, downtrodden portraits of lonely depression (“Darkest Place”), the latter appearing more frequently. Burgess’ vocals hover lightly above Conversations, but the rhythm section behind Woman’s Hour keeps them from floating away completely, providing a solid sense of direction and purpose in unique song structures.

Texturally, the LP is drenched in synths, but keyboardist Josh Hunnisett cleverly assigns unique tonal personalities to each synth part, keeping the album fresh throughout.

Conversations is a powerful LP, largely due to Burgess’ accurate portrayals of the inner turmoil of breakups, and conflicted opener “Unbroken Sequence” makes a potent example. Spiraling keyboards and an echoey step-clap rhythm set the stage for emotionally confused lyrics, which promise “I won’t be a voice that tells you what to do and pushes you around,” but also state “I need you to learn how to walk away,” revealing the narrator’s cognitive dissonance. Afterward, Nicholas Graves’ punchy bass adds a much-needed flare to “Unbroken Sequence,” and to the entire weeping album.

Adding heart-wrenching lyrics to Graves’ prominent bass, “Darkest Place” really is Conversations‘ most depressing crevice. Despite the track’s upbeat nature, Burgess wallows in post-breakup isolation, whimpering “…for the first second of every day/I don’t understand why you’re not around/…/You hang around on the clothes I wear/and I can’t even tell you how much it means.” In a structural move rarely found in pop, “Darkest Place” includes a quiet, percussion-less “ooh” section that creates a spacey, choral ringing effect, and forgoes the expected final chorus, ending the song on its own gloomy accord.

“Darkest Place” inflicts emotional stress not only on the ears but also on the eyes. Inspired by performance artist Vito Acconci, the song’s music video features Burgess singing with eyes closed, as an undefined antagonist attempts to pry them open. It’s a wince-inducing affair at best, thanks to the tortured faces made by Burgess throughout. “Darkest Place” confronts listeners and viewers with the uncomfortable truth that communication and understanding are not prizes to be won, but struggles to be endured, upgrading the everyday breakup song from a painting of despair to a powerful, statement-making weapon.

While less daring artists may play it safe, promoting only the most accessible tunes as singles, Woman’s Hour purposefully avoids snubbing the unorthodox.

Its ambitious creation “Our Love Has No Rhythm” steals the lead single spotlight. A lone, heartfelt verse of communication and forgiveness between lovers opens and closes the song, bookending a large free-form section where Burgess repeats the song’s titular phrase with a restrained passion. Afterward, guitarist William Burgess meticulously arpeggiates quiet, inoffensive chords that underscore a comforting, newfound understanding between lovers.

Furthering the theme of understanding, standout “Her Ghost” brings more to light, unveiling a relationship plagued by the ghost of a lover’s ex. “I’ve got nothing to say to her ghost/Hoping she’ll fade away/…/Love is not lived this way,” Burgess croons, admitting to her lover and to herself that nothing can be done to assuage the tension. In yet another twist, Woman’s Hour paints this melancholy portrait on a bright canvas; with lofty synths, glittery guitars, and crafty percussion, the instrumental behind the song resembles the early ’90′s incarnation of Rush.

Unfortunately, much of Conversations finds Burgess telling her deeply personal tales with a lack of conviction. She also displays hit-or-miss pop sensibilities; while the hooks of “Unbroken Sequence” and “Her Ghost” succeed as ear-worms, other melodies (“Conversations,” “To The End,” “Devotion”) are lackluster.

Conversations is full of surprises, right up to closer “The Day That Needs Defending.” A lively but apt conclusion, the song displays all the character-defining aspects of Woman’s Hour. The band boldly brings unconventional art to the forefront with challenging lyrics, odd song structures, bitter reflections on love, a multitude of synths, and uncomfortable music videos. The day of Woman’s Hour is here, and it needs no defending.

Woman’s Hour – Conversations tracklist:

  1. “Unbroken Sequence”
  2. “Conversations”
  3. “To The End”
  4. “Darkest Place”
  5. “In Stillness We Remain”
  6. “Our Love Has No Rhythm”
  7. “Her Ghost”
  8. “Two Sides of You”
  9. “Devotion”
  10. “Reflections”
  11. “The Day That Needs Defending”
Album-art-for-If-Anything-by-Greys Greys – If Anything

★★★★☆

If Anything is dissonant, noisy, and possesses the subtlety of a wrecking ball. The full-length debut from Toronto’s Greys is a grunge punk record if there ever was one.

Lead singer and guitarist Shehzaad Jiwani, drummer Braeden Craig, bassist Colin Gillespie, and guitarist Cam Graham follow their EPs Easy Listening  and Drift with a much more digestible record. If Anything, released by Carpark Records, is an 11-track odyssey through every off-kilter chord, every class of noise, and every possible volume— if every possible volume is LOUD.

Greys aren’t doing anything unique with their instrumentation (guitars, drums, bass), but they find a sweet spot with their genre-straddling compositions. The young foursome owes a lot to the likes of Toronto’s Broken Social Scene and has borrowed angst from the heaviest of ’90s Seattle grunge. Nirvana’s influence is especially evident in “Flip Yr Lid,” though Greys gets a bit grittier. Jiwani sings, “And if you like me I’d love to kick your mind/I want you to believe I’m doing fine/I’m okay/I’m okay,” through a mean guitar hook and crashing drums. Later on, he throws in, “My words are such a waste.” The phrase is said with conviction as opposed to capitulation.

If one side of Greys’ pendulum is ’90s grunge, the other is no-holds-barred punk.

If Anything has a lot to do with both inward and outward frustration. In the record’s center track, “Chick Singer,” the foursome is ahead of the curve and isn’t without a sense of humor as it confronts the often gendered world of punk. Despite the notion that punk is a progressive genre, it’s no less plagued by sexism than the rest of the world. The tongue-in-cheek track sets up and tears down nearly every misogynist trope in the scene. Jiwani, playing a male archetype, shouts, “Yeah it’s cool that you have a chick singer/Nothing hotter than a girl on bass/Put down that heavy guitar now/We all wanna see a pretty face,” to turn around and admit, “Can’t get around/You being around/and doing all the same things.”

The message is helped by the fact that the track is a punchy headbanger that doesn’t waver in intensity.

Its two-chord guitar and bass rhythm is a simple, steady hook that lets the lyrics play frontman. Jiwani continues, “Yeah it’s cool that you have a chick singer/Break a nail don’t break the strings/Can you believe she won’t give me her number?/Yeah you know it’s the way they all swing.” “Chick Singer” concludes with, “She’s good for a girl!/Good for a girl!/Good for a girl in her own little world!/Fuck you!” This track is a long time coming, and it’s refreshing that it’s coming from a man this time. While most of the songs on If Anything deserve as much attention, “Chick Singer,” in all its subversive glory, is undoubtedly the record’s most important track.

In the album closer “Lull,” Jiwani asks, “Was I really here/Was it all a lie?” It’s a funny question to come at the end of a record with such confidence. Greys has created a cohesive record while embracing a wide variety of noisy, fuzzy, thrashing punk rock elements. They don’t just build walls of sound, they also bend hooks, and while they really have only one volume, at no point is it irksome or trite. If Greys’ If Anything is any indication of what Toronto’s punk scene puts out, then it might be time to give a shit about Canada.

Greys – If Anything tracklist:

  1. “Guy Picciotto”
  2. “Use Your Delusion”
  3. “Flip Yr Lid”
  4. “Adderall”
  5. “Pretty Grim”
  6. “Chick Singer”
  7. “Girl In Landscape”
  8. “Brain Dead”
  9. “Cold Soak”
  10. “Brief Lives”
  11. “Lull”
Album-art-for-Prime-by-Conveyor Conveyor – Prime

★★★½☆

Conspiracy theorists often obsess over the link between modern music and fantasy film, but Brooklyn art rock quartet Conveyor cements that link with its sophomore studio album Prime.

Composed and recorded as an original score for George Lucas’ directorial debut THX 1138 (1971), Prime plays its role as a  score with sharp attention to the film’s themes, but doesn’t play its role as a dynamic studio album for Conveyor.

In THX 1138’s 25th-century dystopia, faceless android police officers dehumanize citizens by reducing their names to simple codes, instating mandatory drugs that nullify emotion, and forcing them to work in dangerous, nuclear factories. Prime vividly reflects the humans’ trapped, silent screams with disconcerting sounds and emotional uncertainty (Conveyor frequently flips between the cold hum of machines and the warm comfort of human contact), but its flippant nature makes the standalone LP feel disjointed.

Introducing Conveyor’s massive overture “Theme I,” a futuristic, wavering organ swoops in as bassist Michael Pedron’s machine-like instrument murmurs a single note. Eerie, discomforting guitars reveal just how dark Lucas’ future really is. Since the humans work in nuclear factories, the threat of serious physical injury looms constantly overhead in the film. Conveyor represents this threat with a pitch-shifted, ambulance-like siren. Afterward, pained, reverb-drenched guitars expose the true dreariness of THX 1138.

While the film’s robot overlords forbid sexual intercourse, its titular character finds satisfaction in a hologram of a naked African woman dancing. In the midst of “Theme I,” drummer Evan Garfield erupts into a sudden tribal rhythm, emphasizing how dangerous a libido can be to Lucas’ hyper-structured society.

As dangerous as human interaction can be, both Prime and THX 1138 emphasize its glorious potential.

This motif is most apparent in “Theme X,” the first appearance of vocals on Prime (aside from the conversational sample in “Theme VII”). In the intoxicating piece, a four-part vocal harmony sings sweet “oohs” akin to The Beatles’ “Because,” stressing the beauty of creative collaboration, as opposed to the isolated, mindless factory work done by THX 1138‘s humans.

While Prime serves as a detailed, thematic score for THX 1138, its role as an LP sours by “Theme V,” due to lack of variety. Conveyor paints Lucas’ dismal dystopia with astonishing accuracy, featuring robotic noises, dissonant harmonies, and jolting sound effects, but cooks with the same ingredients throughout: pulsating, mechanical noises, funeral-like organs, buzzing bass lines, and slow, grounded drum beats.

The uniform buzzing dutifully emphasizes the absence of exuberance in THX 1138, but its frequent appearances cannot hope to fuel Prime’s 64-minute length.

The LP may not be entirely captivating, but Conveyor unfolds a few sonic surprises. In stark contrast to THX 1138‘s largely mechanical world, the band unleashes theramin-like sounds, lush, breezy guitars, and a jazzy, strummed interlude by guitarists TJ Masters and Alan Busch. The presence of these organic tones in Lucas’ lifeless future endorses THX 1138‘s themes of coloring outside the lines and rejecting dangerous norms but, outside the film, seems random and prohibits Prime‘s cohesion.

Also fighting cohesion, dynamic standout “Theme XIII” makes an exciting background for THX 1138‘s climax, but its unchanging tempo drums up an anticlimactic finale for Conveyor.

For the film’s credits, Conveyor aptly covers the 1957 Buddy Holly tune “Words of Love.” Its fitting lyrics plea for certainty about the existence of love, begging “Hold me close and tell me how you feel/Tell me love is real.” Conveyor’s version sways dreamily, affirming emotion’s triumph over robotic lifelessness and offering a comforting conclusion to the album.

Prime serves as a sufficient score for George Lucas’ 1971 film THX 1138, but doesn’t serve Conveyor’s discography nearly as well. Though its successfully depressing aura makes it a fantastic score, its repeated sounds and lengthiness make it a monotonous album.

Conveyor – Prime tracklist:

  1. “Theme I”
  2. “Theme II”
  3. “Theme III”
  4. “Theme IV”
  5. “Theme V”
  6. “Theme VI”
  7. “Theme VII”
  8. “Theme VIII”
  9. “Theme IX”
  10. “Theme X”
  11. “Theme XI”
  12. “Theme XII”
  13. “Theme XIII”
  14. “Words of Love”
Album-art-for-Wray-by-Wray Wray – Wray

★★★½☆

Repetitive and atmospheric, Birmingham, Alabama threesome Wray, step out with their self-titled full length, hauling shoegaze with some teeth. Bassist and vocalist David Brown, guitarist and vocalist David Swatzell, and drummer Blake Wimberly teamed up with engineer Daniel Farris (St. Vincent, Man Or Astro-man?) to create their brand of “power-gaze,” a plugging, guitar heavy take on background noise loaded with the energy of a rock show. With a power level nestled a couple notches above My Bloody Valentine and grooves borrowed from Faust, Wray is some mighty fine background music.

“Blood Moon” slowly fades in with churning rhythmic drumming and guitars. The instrumentals oscillate underneath hazy vocals only to erupt with an in-your-face solo. The escalation is unexpected but satisfying. Wray, as a whole, has the flavor of cool, understated atmospheric party music. However, that can’t be said for “Bad Heart,” the flattest song on the record. On this track, Wray experiments with guitar distortion and cranking up the volume, but the wall of sound isn’t a compelling one.

“Bad Heart” evokes a realization — noise works best as background.

Wray is not a lyrics-driven album. The words often serve as a breathy accompaniment to the trio’s crashing waves of sound. Brown is almost humming when he sings, “Standing tall/Standing tall/ It’s a misgiving,” in “Apacheria” and the words, ”You’re gonna be fine/ Yeah, you’re gonna be fine/ And you know it,” seem to fall out of his head without articulation in “Bad Heart.” The majority of the vocals are drawn out and not completely intelligible. Despite this, it’s apparent that the words, much like the rhythms and melodies, are repetitive — a trademark of Wray. The record is characterized by their guitar and drum heavy instrumentals while still maintaining the blurred repetition and tonal attributes of 80′s post-punk shoegaze.

Wray has magical moments, such as “May 15.” With largely dreamy guitar melody accompanied by a rumbling rhythm section, the song is over seven minutes of Wray at their finest. The downfall is the track’s abrupt ending, which is a common problem throughout the record. Essentially every track concludes with non-ending dead-ends into silence as if the trio were in rehearsal and collectively agreed they needed to go back and play something over again, with just seconds of static or wind left behind. With such beautiful opening hooks and melodic lines, it’s a shame that Wray can’t figure out how to close.

They’re the musical equivalent to the guy at the bar that seems great, but then gets too drunk to walk home without assistance.

That aside, Wray has more bright spots than poor moments. The Alabama natives have successfully merged the energy and appeal of rock music with the instrumentals and essence of shoegaze, creating “power-gaze.” Whatever they want to call it, Wray builds a solid case for making “background” music the life of the party.

Wray – Wray tracklist:

  1. “Blood Moon”
  2. “Apacheria”
  3. “Swells”
  4. “May 15″
  5. “Graved”
  6. “Bad Heart”
  7. “Relative”
Album-art-for-Hollow-by-Chris-Stowe Chris Stowe – Hollow

★★★½☆

There’s a soft spot in music for artists who explore raw, visceral emotions in their material. This bare-all perspective strengthens the bond between musician and listener, and can act as a coping mechanism for both, making the experience more intimate and valuable.

Chris Stowe delivers this organic brand of music on his follow-up to 2012’s Bleed, singing soothing songs about heartache, dealing with depression, and fears of inadequacy. His lyrical content evokes a strong emotional response, digging up penitent recollections of years past in a comforting way.

Rather than brooding in melancholy despair, Hollow focuses on the struggles of loss and overcoming the associated pain, shining light on the difficult task of coming to terms with the past.

Stripped acoustic guitars and husky vocals drive Stowe’s powerful folk songs, contributing to the natural, sensitive feel of his music as he calms the soul.

Hollow is a beautiful escape for Stowe, who in “Sometimes They Give Us Beer For Free” states, “I learned to play this thing to help me feel better.” It’s a short lament about tour life and his insecurities as a musician, like fearing he’ll screw up. This emotional song explores his transcontinental road tour in a diary-like sequence of dates, exemplifying his day-to-day hardships as he tries to cope with sorrow and self-doubt.

Stowe’s lyrics paint pictures while his unadorned guitar frames the scenes, acting more as simplistic background noise to his ardent vocals than a driving force. This brings his words to the foreground, amplifying their importance and making them the centerpiece of his writing.

“Oh, Lonesome” epitomizes Stowe’s tranquil style, with placid guitar supporting poignant lyrics. Using a forlorn, regretful look at a failed relationship, Stowe scrutinizes the past and realizes he’s still conflicted. Repeatedly questioning what he would do if he could turn back time, he finally recognizes his unsureness when he says, “If I’ve learned anything it’s that I haven’t learned anything at all.” Lacking the occasional harmonies and layers of guitars that sneak on to the album, “Oh, Lonesome” is one of the more solemn tracks.

However, Hollow does branch out past the vulnerable tracks to welcome a small arsenal of other instruments and backup singing. “Longer Than It Should Have” leans toward the mellow acoustic side, but features a pinch of drums and electric guitar embellishment, adding newfangled components. However, “Angeline” does the opposite, speeding up the tempo and adding harmonica, strengthening the guitar.

Stretching even farther is “Hey Willow,” which is the only song to put more focus on music than lyrics. The focal point is actually a combination of piano and harmonica, leaving the guitar to fall by the wayside, creating an entirely different, happy vibe, despite the mournful lyrics.

The album ends on the most personal track “I Just Miss Her When I’m Drinking.” Summarizing all of the emotions expressed across the entirety of the album, the song is passionate and rueful. Expressing deep regret and longing for a past lover, Stowe comes to terms with the fact that it’s over, stating, “And if I told the truth, I’m better off alone/Between me and you I’ll be alright/I’ll just miss her when I’m drinking.” A faster pace is set as the guitar dumbs down to a few straightforward chords, paving the way for Stowe to yell it out, crafting the most heartrending song on the prepossessing album.

Hollow is a crude self-portrait, relying on almost nothing but Stowe’s words and minimalistic guitar to depict his struggles in life. Genuine and honest, the album dwells on familiar feelings and offers comfort, though it realistically proves heartache never fully fades.

Chris Stowe – Hollow tracklist:

  1. “Blood Drinkers”
  2. “Rain”
  3. “Angeline”
  4. “Sometimes They Give Us Beer For Free”
  5. “Oh, Lonesome”
  6. “Longer Than It Should Have”
  7. “Hey Willow”
  8. “Untitled”
  9. “I Just Miss Her When I’m Drinking”
Album-art-for-For-Those-Who-Stay-by-PS-I-Love-You PS I Love You – For Those Who Stay

★★★★☆

In only 9 tracks, Ontario-based indie punk duo PS I Love You, consisting of singer/guitarist Paul Saulnier and drummer Benjamin Nelson, rifles through a plethora of moods and atmospheres without employing lengthy lyrics or relying on flashy instrumentation.

On its third LP For Those Who Stay, PSILY takes a stance for minimalism in experimental, jam-based rock with drawn-out drone notes in high-pitched keyboard sections (“Bad Brain Day”), unyielding basslines (“Advice”), and tortured choral voices (“Afraid of the Light”). Minimalism also appears in the duo’s lyrics; some songs contain only a few stanzas (“Bad Brain Day,” “Friends Forever”).

PSILY’s characteristic, ambitious musicianship sets For Those Who Stay above its peers.

Bypassing the traditional verse-chorus setup, Saulnier and Nelson opt for their own inventive, texture-governed song structures. In the gentle “Bad Brain Day,” a serene acoustic guitar happily fingerpicks its way into For Those Who Stay’s sonic universe. After Saulnier’s fragile vocal line tells the short, sweet story of a depressed narrator cured by the comforting presence of a loved one, a shrill keyboard note pierces the song, leading an instrumental parade of lofty synth chords and crooning falsetto voices to a step-clap rhythm across the entire second half of the song.

Though the cleverly constructed tunes are plagued by consistent, monotonous distortion (“Limestone Radio,” “Friends Forever”), Nelson’s attentive ear for dynamics and rhythm prevents For Those Who Stay from losing its flare and exemplifies how heavy, distorted rock — a five-decade old style — can still captivate listeners for extended periods of time (“Advice,” “For Those Who Stay”). Nelson’s attention to musical detail is a key element in PSILY’s ability to make impressive emotional jumps (like from the noisy “Advice,” to the subdued “Bad Brain Day”) without feeling jolty or disjointed.

Still, Nelson’s ear for compositional embellishment would be useless without Saulnier’s well-written songs to intensify. The frontman holds up his half of the duo masterfully, with poetically pained lyrics like “I think it’s real, I know it’s real/’cause my dead friends tell me truth in my dreams” (“Afraid of the Light”), bright, emotive guitar solos (“For Those Who Stay,” “More of the Same”), and a fiery vocal delivery that translates as both passionately desperate and peacefully knowing.

Leaning more toward desperate than knowing, the energetic opener “In My Mind At Least” bears a striking resemblance to the Cure with its combination of distressed lyrics, deceptively cheery guitars, and poppy drums. Saulnier’s flustered vocals enter with a frustrated cry of “I’m sorry I forgot!” that seems to surprise the singer as much as his audience. Continuing the upset-yet-upbeat attitude, “Advice” adds feedback and distortion to the mix.

With persisting distortion, the earsplitting, Weezer-esque guitar solo that opens “More of the Same” wails expressively for a full 90 seconds.

To its narrator, “More of the Same” may be about a glorious, eye-opening new love, but the opening lines (“More of the same/Watch out for it/Sneaks up on you/This time it’s new/I just can’t believe/I’m amazed at all this”) are also an accurate description of an artist satisfied with an unorthodox creation.

By the time PSILY reaches its album closer “Hoarders,” For Those Who Stay finds its way back to upset-yet-upbeat. Saulnier cries desperately “How do you live like this?” over a driving punk progression that seems unstoppable until the song’s tumultuous coda, in which ominous keyboards set a dark harmonic background for the guttural bassline that accelerates the album to a hurried, apocalyptic end, leaving listeners eager to restart the record.

PS I Love You’s third LP is a dark-but-fun, indie punk spectacle with an experimental orientation. Fueled by Saulnier’s minimalistic lyrics and passionate performances, and equipped with Nelson’s sharp ear for dynamic songwriting, For Those Who Stay’s 9-song tracklist makes the case for this exceptional duo and for rock minimalists everywhere.

PS I Love You – For Those Who Stay tracklist:

  1. “In My Mind At Least”
  2. “Advice”
  3. “Bad Brain Day”
  4. “Limestone Radio”
  5. “For Those Who Stay”
  6. “Afraid of the Light”
  7. “Friends Forever”
  8. “More of the Same”
  9. “Hoarders”
Album-art-for-Remedy-by-Old-Crow-Medicine-Show Old Crow Medicine Show – Remedy

★½☆☆☆

While its members are clearly talented musicians, Virginia country group Old Crow Medicine Show delivers an astoundingly accurate caricature of unintelligent, hillbilly country music with its fifth album, Remedy.

The record is sure to please country fans, as it contains all of the genre’s usual elements: banjo, fiddle, hit-or-miss harmonica, resonator guitar, and stand-up bass, with a bonus accordion occasionally adding an unnecessary harmonic background to the already thick sound. Each member of OCMS plays his instruments well, and their vocal harmonies are always spot on, but those skills only emphasize the band’s overly simplistic style.

Luckily, most Remedy songs are written with concise construction, ending promptly after displaying their musical and lyrical ideas and avoiding unnecessary repeats (save for the relentless double chorus of “Tennessee Bound,” which is sure to make you stomp your cowboy boots on the floor of your wooden-plank front porch).

Frontman Critter Fuqua’s hyperbolic Southern accent drizzles a thick layer of country slime over the already twangy album.

His one-dimensional narratives contain many stereotypical country themes, including strenuous relationships (“Sweet Amarillo,” “Shit Creek”) and drowning one’s problems in alcohol (“Dearly Departed Friend,” “Firewater”).

Album opener “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer” recounts the puke-worthy tale of a prisoner who gets a conjugal visit from a vaguely described woman and decides to take their sexual relations to a trailer. The next morning, another vaguely described character, Old Mr. Hangman, offers the narrator freedom from incarceration in exchange for some time with his “pretty lady.”

In OCMS’ story, this woman’s body is used as a simple bargaining chip. She doesn’t get a name, personality, or even hair color. Her existence is a mere novelty to the song’s narrator and to OCMS. And that’s fine with them; each chorus approves of its preceding verse with a cringe-inducing wail of, “C’mon/We’re unshackled tonight/…/So let’s kick it in the brushy mountain conjugal trailer.” The trashy tale is not only disgusting, but also poorly told, signaling listeners looking for clever, emotional music to move along.

If listeners do stay, they’ll hear barking dogs give way to the racing fiddles that introduce “8 Dogs 8 Banjos,” which is sadly not a Weird Al Yankovic parody of the country genre. Reaching the pinnacle of “redneck music,” this obnoxious ho-down asserts that the titular items, along with hot coffee and sweet tea, are all one needs to be happy.

OCMS may have intended “8 Dogs 8 Banjos” to be a heartfelt promotion of companionship and music, but since the band doesn’t specify why these values are important, the song comes across a shallow list of objects one might find on a Western-themed scavenger hunt.

The narrowness of Fuqua’s worldview is best represented in the love song “Sweet Amarillo,” where he proclaims that “the world’s greatest wonder, from what I can tell, is how a cowgirl like you could ever look my way.” Tragically, the object of his affection runs off to join the rodeo, leaving listeners with the whine of an unpoetic, dejected cowboy.

While its lyrical universe is largely vapid, Old Crow Medicine Show does offer a few well-written songs.

The acoustic guitar-centric, pedal steel-laden “Dearly Departed Friend” paints the heartbreaking picture of a man at a close friend’s funeral service. The tune is clearly sincere and might have been touching, if only the sentiment weren’t cheapened by a heaping helping of country clichés like American flags, barbecues, and kids riding four-wheelers.

Another glimpse of potential emerges in the folk-inspired “O Cumberland River,” but OCMS’ ever-present two-step country rhythm poisons every tune it touches. In fact, the arduous, countrified trot permeates most of Remedy, making myriad songs much more annoying than they have to be (“Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer,” “Doc’s Day,” “Sweet Home”).

Only one Remedy track is beyond the reach of the word “annoying”: beautiful album closer “The Warden,” a subdued folk tune with warm vocal harmonies. As a plaintive harmonica solo cries over arpeggiated banjo chords, “The Warden” tells the story of a guilt-ridden prison guard. Each of its verses reiterates the same concept (because of his guilt, the warden is a prisoner, too) with varying degrees of poeticism. The insightful tale makes a strong case for OCMS’ songwriting, but cannot hope to alleviate the headache left by Remedy’s 12 preceding tracks.

Old Crow Medicine Show’s fifth album may be called Remedy, but is more likely to cause ailments than cure them. While a handful of earnest moments shine through, the vast majority of the album will have listeners projectile vomiting into their spit cans.

Old Crow Medicine Show – Remedy tracklist:

  1. “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer”
  2. “8 Dogs 8 Banjos”
  3. “Sweet Amarillo”
  4. “Mean Enough World”
  5. “Dearly Departed Friend”
  6. “Firewater”
  7. “Brave Boys”
  8. “Doc’s Day”
  9. “O Cumberland River”
  10. “Tennessee Bound”
  11. “Shit Creek”
  12. “Sweet Home”
  13. “The Warden”
Album-art-for-Blood::Muscles::Bones-by-Street-Eaters Street Eaters – Blood::Muscles::Bones

★★★½☆

Street Eaters aren’t playing nice with their confrontational second full-length Blood::Muscles::Bones. The sophomore album with Nervous Intent Records never lets off the gas, propelled by drummer and vocalist Megan March, and bassist and vocalist John No. The East Bay Area duo captures the essence of angry, aggressive, anti-establishment punk with this thrashing record, and while it’s traditional, it’s also refreshing.

Alienation and ruination are common themes throughout Blood::Muscles::Bones, which is made apparent from the beginning by the glitchy opening seconds of “Reverse.” Intro instrumentals play backward and lock in a non-linear sensation in this track about a life in retrograde. March reflects, “At the end of time I climb into the womb/The only place where I can get away from truth/From youth/From doom.” It’s a literal interpretation of living in reverse and knowing where everything went wrong.

The 50-50 collaboration between March and No translates like a battle — who can play faster, louder, and more honestly — which makes for songs with unparalleled intensity.

Their gritty drum-and-bass standoff makes every track race for the finish like street kids barreling down an alley to flee from cops. Youthful spirit is what makes Blood::Muscles::Bones both angry and sentimental.

The duo is a blend of the ’90s Pacific Northwest underground activism scene and Bay Area punk revivalists with a dash of Riot grrrl spirit. Street Eaters’ sound sits in the void between Portland-based indie rockers, the Thermals, and Dutch post-punk alchemists, the Ex.

March and No’s activist spirit takes a rest in “Null.” March croons, “I feel a comfort in knowing that if I don’t sow then I won’t reap/I’ll make it null.” The track makes these rabble-rousers seem deflated, but it’s really just a different breed of anthem. In “Blood::Muscles::Bones,” March sings, “Yes, I think it really matters/If you are dying in your own skin/It can’t wait/It’s all just a combination of blood, muscles, and our bones/They will never break.” The track has a quieter sense of determination than its following songs.

That aside, the ten-track full-length doesn’t arc or waver in intensity. Street Eaters focus their attention on greed and excess — the record charges on ceaselessly like a train running full tilt. The real standouts are “Dead Parts” with its mean hook, and the remarkably catchy “Running Dog.” However, Blood::Muscles::Bones — while exciting — also flatlines. Without much escalation or variety, the record makes it seem like Street Eaters have one note.

March and No’s mix of incredible energy and mutual political sensibilities begets thoughtful, heavy records, and this one is no exception. Street Eaters’ Blood::Muscles::Bones is precisely the type of fuel needed to get mad.

Street Eaters – Blood::Muscles::Bones tracklist:

  1. “Reverse”
  2. “Null”
  3. “Blood::Muscles::Bones”
  4. “Dead Parts”
  5. “Tailings”
  6. “Empty Rooms”
  7. “West”
  8. “Running Dog”
  9. “Waxwing”
  10. “Comets”
Album-art-for-The-Dead-Age-by-Unicycle-Loves-You Unicycle Loves You – The Dead Age

★★½☆☆

Punk isn’t dead, but it’s bored out of its mind. Brooklyn trio Unicycle Loves You promises a peculiar record in its fourth LP The Dead Age with quirky song titles like “Suicide Pizza” and “Endless Bummer,” but delivers little more than predictable, mediocre punk rock.

The album artwork depicts a seagull-littered beach, neon pink and green cursive font, and a severed statue bust, but The Dead Age isn’t nearly as intriguing. The record quickly blends into any background, with a constant tempo and a blanket of fuzzy distortion enveloping the entire album.

The self-described “noise pop/psych punk” act limits itself by burying its vocals under blaring guitars, defiantly thick basslines, and primitively pounding drums, making most lyrics impossible to distinguish. Singer/guitarist Jim Carroll’s slurred, sloppy vocal performances further instruct listeners to focus on other elements. His vocal melodies are often doubled by his guitar (“JAWS,” “Grownups”), implying yet again that in ULY’s music, the vocals are no more important than guitar, bass, or drums.

Carroll’s only prominent vocal line on the album appears in the screeching punk anthem, “We Never Worry,” where he proudly calls, “If I knew now what I knew then/then I would learn what I don’t know!”

The intentionally vague lyrics indicate again that vocals are just another crude weapon in ULY’s punk rock arsenal.

An additional weapon is the nonstop barrage of descending, single-string guitar phrases that rubber stamp a majority of The Dead Age’s songs and inhibit them from having unique personalities (“Falling Off,” “Suicide Pizza,” “Face Tattoo,” “Bad News Club,” “Endless Bummer”).

One anomaly is the intoxicating, spacey waltz “Any Daydreaming Morning.” True to Unicycle form, vocals float faintly in the distance, but in this scenario they add ambience, helping rather than hurting. Carroll’s guitar solo consists of rapidly-repeated notes, performed with surprising precision and skill. At the end of “Any Daydreaming Morning,” noisy, off-putting feedback splashes icy water in listeners’ faces, waking them from the track’s hazy, relaxed atmosphere and back into the cold, harsh realities of a hum-drum punk record.

Another gem is the summery “Bad News Club,” which boasts a potent surf rock influence. The sunshine-soaked guitar solo that introduces the track is the most aware on the album, building up to the song’s main riff with keen pop sensibilities akin to the Clash.

Unfortunately, ULY forgoes the Clash’s compositional ambition; predictability is The Dead Age‘s greatest fault. Bassist Nicole Vitale’s lines thump along sufficiently, but not poignantly. Meanwhile, drummer Dennis Lehrer’s bombastic playing meets punk standards, but goes no further. Stagnant, unchanging guitar parts (“Falling Off,” “Endless Bummer”) and far-from-captivating solos (“Suicide Pizza,” “JAWS”) also help confirm The Dead Age‘s status as an unsurprising, typical punk record.

Standout “Face Tattoo” suggests a stylistic change, jumping in with a drum beat that could almost be considered “dancey,” but ULY’s thrashing guitars quickly make it clear that the trio’s punk rock core is immovable, even by their own experiments. At almost five minutes long, the track, like the whole of The Dead Age, doesn’t stay interesting enough to warrant its length.

Unicycle Loves You pairs atypical song titles (and band names) with typical music. Despite its varied influences, attempts at creative songwriting, and the couple of hidden treasures it harbors, The Dead Age is surprisingly forgettable.

Unicycle Loves You – The Dead Age tracklist:

  1. “Falling Off”
  2. “We Never Worry”
  3. “Suicide Pizza”
  4. “Silent Minus”
  5. “Face Tattoo”
  6. “JAWS”
  7. “Bad News Club”
  8. “Endless Bummer”
  9. “Any Daydreaming Morning”
  10. “Grownups”
  11. “X-ray Glaze”
  12. “The Dead Age”
Album-art-for-Jaded&Faded-by-Cerebral-Ballzy Cerebral Ballzy – Jaded & Faded

★★☆☆☆

It’s been a few years since the offensively-named Cerebral Ballzy unleashed hell on its self-titled debut. Cerebral Ballzy embodied the spirit of the great punk bands of the ’70s and ’80s, fueling mosh pits and filling venues full of sweaty teenagers as well as any other hardcore band.

But despite the contagious energy of the music, the blistering riffs and stereotypical “we don’t give a fuck” punk mentality, Cerebral Ballzy lacked fundamental songwriting skills, much like the outfit’s new record, Jaded & Faded.

A slew of shoddy, muffled mixes, absurd vocal stylings, and unbearably similar songs make Cerebral Ballzy altogether off-putting. While trying hard to be a rebellious, let’s-piss-off-our-parents type of album, Jaded & Faded comes off as nothing more than an unlistenable mess.

Of course, punk is a uniquely disorderly genre, but Jaded & Faded surpasses the acceptable dose of lawlessness. It’s hard to tell what’s going in any of the brief songs, all of which sound nearly identical with their lifeless riffs.

The album starts on “Another Day” with a slow, overdriven guitar, but it’s not long before the song loses any tinge of organization as it speeds up and singer Honor Titus starts barking his unintelligible lyrics. Impulsive tempo changes clash as the band clumsily trips over itself in a hasty effort to play as fast as possible, only to end up sounding musically illiterate. The same horrendous trend carries over the rest of the album, but gets more unbearable as it’s repeated for the umpteenpth time.

Cerebral Ballzy consistently stumbles through every song, regardless of speed, begging the question of whether the band has played its instruments at all in the years since its debut.

And just when you think the album couldn’t get worse than the muddled chorus of “Downtown” or the garbled shouts in “Parade of Idiots,” it sinks even lower.

Other bands have pulled off joke songs in the past (see: Blink-182’s “Depends”), but Cerebral Ballzy turns it into a total shit show. “Speed Wobbles” is a horrific waste of time and a serious challenge to sit through. It’s unclear whether the song was intended to be funny or not, but given how utterly dreadfully it’s performed, it can only be a failed joke or an ironic mockery of punk music. Titus squeals child-like lyrics about the dangers of speed wobbles while skating, further ruining the already dull instrumentals. As if the tone of his voice wasn’t bad enough, the lyrics, “Going so fast that it’s bound to end/Going down hard no matter how I shred,” are as basic as they come.

Titus goes back to adulthood on the following track, “Fast Food,” though he’s covering an equally vapid subject. This classic punk song proves that breakneck riffs and rebellious lyrics do not always make a hit. The instruments are so tangled that it’s hard to tell one from another, and the simple, repeated chorus of, “Fast food, kill that dude” reinforces the impression that Cerebral Ballzy is simply clueless.

The group has every necessary element of a punk rock band—except, of course, what makes the genre good. Yes, they thrash and scream and cause mayhem. Yes, they sing about sex and skateboarding and junk food. But the complete absence of depth destroys any chance of it becoming quality music. Without intelligent, pressing subject matter, the music loses its power, ultimately retracting to nothing more than incoherent noise.

What this all comes down to is Cerebral Ballzy’s complete lack of songwriting skill, which doesn’t reach far past a screaming baby dropping a distorted guitar on a drum set. The band knows punk and how to mimic it, but not how to make it worthy of anyone’s attention.

Cerebral Ballzy – Jaded & Faded tracklist:

  1. “Another Day”
  2. “Fake I.D.”
  3. “Parade of Idiots”
  4. “Better In Leather”
  5. “City’s Girl”
  6. “Lonely As America”
  7. “Downtown”
  8. “Speed Wobbles”
  9. “Fast Food”
  10. “Off With Your Head”
  11. “Pretty In The City”
  12. “Be Your Toy”
  13. “All I Ever Wanted”
Album-Art-for-Familiars-by-The-Antlers The Antlers – Familiars

★★★½☆

The Antlers, best known for their 2009 record Hospice—a concept album set in a cancer ward—are no strangers to profound emotional probing. Lead singer and guitarist Peter Silberman’s lyrics almost always come back to themes of grief, confusion, regret, and what we will all, eventually and ubiquitously, experience: death.

This time around, however, on their fifth album Familiars, the storytelling takes a sharp twist along its path. Silberman is no longer caught up in the process of grieving and repentance. Instead, Familiars reveals the endeavors of moving on, moving forward, and accepting mortality.

Self-produced and recorded, Familiars runs slowly, ushering through speakers like a lullaby. Languid horns are accompanied by fluttering keyboard strokes and subdued guitar plucks, creating a beautiful landscape for Silberman’s intense, passionate vocals to drift through. Drummer Darby Cicci’s jazzy undertones are a new tool in the Antlers’ mystical toolbox, adding to Familiars‘ bittersweet theme.

The ambiance is more comparable to a dream than a particular noise—soft and jarring, cohesively cluttered with organs, basses, and harmonicas, setting the mood to an uncomfortable contentment.

The first track, “Palace,” opens with flickering keyboards and steady symbols, followed by somnolent horns and Silberman’s sooty, whispery moans. “But I swear I’ll find your light in the middle/Where there’s so little late at night, down in the pit of the well,” he croons. The last hook is the first taste of the album’s apparent (and newfound) optimism and strength, setting the mood for the tracks to come.

“Doppelgänger” is one of the better examples of Silberman’s upward journey. “If you’re quiet, you can hear the monster breathing…/Do you hear that gentle tapping?/My ugly creature’s freezing,” the second track begins, expressing that confronting your demons and accepting who you are is essential to personal growth.

Familiars succeeds in articulating encouraging, heroic couplets of inspiration, buried within the individual stories each song presents. “You will hate who you are/’Til you overthrow who you’ve been,” Silberman coos on the fifth track, “Director.”

Only three verses long, the last song, “Refuge,” may be the most powerful one on the album. “You’re already home and you don’t even know it/You have a room you can return to, and you’ll never outgrow it/See, you’re already home when you don’t know where to find it,” Silberman’s soothing vocals urge, backed up by wavering horns that stack emotions high.

He closes the album by singing, “It’s not our house that we remember/It’s a feeling outside it when everyone’s gone but we leave all the lights on anyway,” summarizing into one, achingly beautiful and nostalgic feeling, the message of Familiars.

We only have what we remember. Emotions, memories. These are what we are left with—and we must try to accept our mortality and vanquish human-natured tenacity.

Familiars is more than just a dream that listeners can slip in and out of. It’s a world that demands utter devotion. Utter willingness to jump into the wistful, abstracted abyss without looking back—a cold plunge and a heavy burden. The Antlers may be asking too much of listeners. Sometimes, a simple dream is enough.

The Antlers – Familiars tracklist:

  1. “Palace”
  2. “Doppelgänger”
  3. “Hotel”
  4. “Intruders”
  5. “Director”
  6. “Revisited”
  7. “Parade”
  8. “Surrender”
  9. “Refuge”
Album-art-for-Pedals-by-SPEAK Speak – Pedals

★★★½☆

With summer underway, countless playlists are being created in hopes of achieving all sorts of vibes that make you want to dance your way to the beach or unwind with friends at a backyard cookout. But with Speak’s upcoming album Pedals hitting the shelves, playlists won’t be necessary; this album takes you into every little summery sound nook you never knew you were looking to find.

Pedals sounds like a blend of Foster the People and Passion Pit: it’s synthesizers and positive vibrations galore, with lyrics that lend themselves easily to nostalgia.

The album flows just as nicely as a good summer playlist should, with a few explosive dance songs to pump up the crowd and a chill middle section followed by a few slow, emotional numbers, ending boldly with chants that leave a happy ringing in your ears.

From the start of “Oh Lord,” an already infectious drum line hooks you right in.

A brief triangle/bass duet follows the first chorus, bringing a bit of funk into the song. The wailing chorus line, “Oh Lord, it’s another one,” brings a feeling of pure, unabashed joy to the summer anthem, and the melodic tune sticks long after the first listen, like a juicy watermelon slice in your hand. 

The hopeful track “Nightlight” makes it seem like summer will never have to end. Singer Troupe Gammage croons, “And if every day is an eye for an eye, well then I won’t lose sight/’Cause if I never get any closer to it, the longer I’ll try.” The sound is equally uplifting, and sways like waves with a moderate tempo that pushes the lyrics to the foreground.

When the album finally decides it’s time for a little cool down, “11 12 13” brings hazy vocals and an echoey ambiance that feels soft and slow on your ears.

Halfway through “11 12 13,” the melody cuts off and morphs into an even slower and hazier snippet of sound. Speak pulls this trick throughout the album, completely switching gears near the end of almost every track. These little twists are enjoyable at points, but more than once, a song goes on after it should have died out.  

Still, Pedals‘ crisp sound flows seamlessly between every summer mood with infectious charm. This shuffle-able album is a must to shed a fresh light on the tunes of any summertime occasion.

SPEAK – Pedals tracklist:

  1. “Gates”
  2. “Mystery Lights”
  3. “Nightlight”
  4. “Weiss”
  5. “This Much I Know”
  6. “Peaks”
  7. “Oh Lord”
  8. “Modern Art”
  9. “Be Reasonable, Diane”
  10. “Congo”
  11. “Heavy Metal War”
  12. “11 12 13″
  13. “The Meantime”
  14. “Trials”