Album-art-for-Wild-Onion-by-Twin-Peaks Twin Peaks – Wild Onion

★★★★★

It should be noted, and usually is, that the Chicagoland foursome Twin Peaks’ sound has nothing to do with David Lynch’s eerie ’90s cult-classic. What’s more telling is the band chose the name because it “sounded cool.” Singer and guitarist Cadien Lake James, drummer Connor Brodner, guitarist Clay Frankel, and bassist Jack Dolan are childhood friends and have been on the rise since the debut of Sunken in ’13, playing South by Southwest and Pitchfork, and dropping out of college. Twin Peaks is all grown up with its latest release, Wild Onion; the messy, guitar-driven pop has the nostalgia and impact of a band that’s been writing timeless love songs and doing coke off breasts before the band members were even born. The Twin Peaks dudes’ casual goofball demeanor may seem like a mismatch with their impeccable songwriting, but it’s exactly that youthful essence that has them catching lightning in a bottle with this near-perfect record.

Wild Onion covers everything—sex, good times, bummers, growing up—which it has plenty of room to do in its whopping 16 tracks.

“I Found a Way” is Twin Peaks’ way of telling everyone it’s going to be all right. Frankel bellows from his lower register, “I found a new way/To open up my mind/I’d love to tell you ‘bout it honey/If you could find the time.” His voice ranges from that low pitch to a more ear-friendly version of crack rock vocals. “I can see from here to New York City/and I know that every place is the same/I found a way/I can see the dark sky coming/I know it’s on its way.” The backdrop is a simple, repetitive guitar riff and fast, subtle drumming.

The record offers a little bit of everything in the soft-punk, old school pop playbook, including change-ups in instrumentation. A flute opens “Mirror of Time,” making way for a break from the record’s playful diet-garage-punk-rock sound. It’s a slower pop number that sounds like a Beatles-Beach Boys mash-up when they were at their sweetest. After “Mirror of Time,” the hits really just keep coming. “Sloop Jay D’s” opening guitar riff is a mega hook and listeners’ ears are defenseless from the catchiness of this silly, expletive-laden song. “Stranger World” features a saxophone and some funky lo-fi blues, and while brief, and a little unexpected for a punk record, the track is purely instrumental and purely fantastic.

It’s evidence Twin Peaks has noise in its wheelhouse other than dirty, scuzzy garage punk.

And though the band can do more, “Flavor” is exactly of the aforementioned genre, and it’s so so tasty. “I searched and drifted and grieved, man/Just trying to decide who to be/Oh and I took a seat by the sea and/I laid beneath the evergreen trees/and I decided I’d just try to be me… Flavor your heart and your soul.” The lyrics are a bit nonsensical, but they’re paired with no-nonsense straight-forward guitar-and-drums rock ’n’ roll, not unlike the Rolling Stones. The track captures moments of thoughtful introspection of a young man trying to figure out who he is and wants to be. Twin Peaks finds a way to take classic tropes and universal struggles, and make them new and simultaneously relatable. It’s yet another moment where the band’s youth is in its favor—it can be earnest without being derided or scrutinized.

The world hasn’t hardened Cadien Lake James, Connor Brodner, Clay Frankel, and Jack Dolan just yet.

“Mind Frame” is a blissful closer to this record packed with variety. Its chugging, slow rhythm is sway-worthy as hazy vocals float atop it, also keeping time. The track features simple, melodic guitar solos and concludes with crashing drums that fade into nothing. It’s a bittersweet end to a very fun record. Wild Onion captures the spirit of being young; it reflects on the sensation of being able to buy smokes and porn while apartments are unaffordable. The record is like biking down an empty city street with a best friend, probably a little drunk, feeling the wind, looking at the lights and buildings, and knowing that even though it’s not perfect, life in that moment is exactly what it’s meant to be.

It’d be a safe bet to say that it might be impossible for Twin Peaks to write a bad song. The band feels like a group of fresh-faced old souls one may have hung out with, and the album sounds like something familiar but never heard before. Wild Onion is ear candy that a stoned friend found under the couch and ate anyway.

Twin Peaks – Wild Onion tracklist:

  1. “I Found a New Way”
  2. “Strawberry Smoothie”
  3. “Mirror of Time”
  4. “Sloop Jay D”
  5. “Making Breakfast”
  6. “Strange World”
  7. “Fade Away”
  8. “Sweet Thing”
  9. “Stranger World”
  10. “Telephone”
  11. “Flavor”
  12. “Ordinary People”
  13. “Good Lovin’”
  14. “Hold On”
  15. “No Way Out”
  16. “Mind Frame”
Album-Art-for-Never-Hungover-Again-by-Joyce-Manor Joyce Manor – Never Hungover Again

★★★★½

Punk’s latest cult-classic band was conceived like an illegitimate child from a one-night-stand back in ’08—most likely in the backseat of a car with a cheap bottle of booze. What’s more punk than that? After Andrew Jackson Jihad asked friend, now vocalist and guitarist, Barry Johnson to open his show, Johnson floundered for a name. So, he named the now outrageously popular power-violence band after an apartment complex he passed by every day: Joyce Manor.

Six years later, the punk quartet is releasing its third studio album Never Hungover Again, the band’s first record with major leaguers Epitaph Records. With a solid mix of punk, punchy quick-hits, and a few heartfelt, cringe-inducing songs, Never Hungover Again is a perfectly cliché punk record to blare with friends, or for dancing and fist-pumping away at one of Joyce Manor’s concerts.

“Schley,” the dead-center song of the album is definitive of Joyce Manor’s aesthetic, setting high standards for the recored. Johnson sings, “So watch out, you’re in danger/You’d never know it but you know that it’s possible,” while melodic guitar plucks and symbol smacks soothe out the song, bringing the lyrics to a slowed-down, more meaningful statement. After an absolutely beautiful guitar riff, Johnson picks back up, belting out, “Like old friends who’d never ask ‘How can you be happy when you wear all black?’/And they care because they wanna,” quickening the pace and spiraling into the beginnings of a breakdown. “It feels weird like a really weird movie/All night in my head/All night in my head,” he croons just before screaming “Schley.”

Only two minutes and nine seconds of a song and a flood of teenage memories have pushed down a mental dam. Damn.

The second track “Falling in Love Again” starts slow before abruptly cutting to a jarring, throbbing melody. “Thanks for showing me around last night/I hope you don’t think I don’t care,” Johnson begins, backed by candied power chords. “I think you’re funny/I like your friends/I like the way they treat you,” he continues through the chorus. Much like the instrumental storyline, the lyrics take a sharp twist in a morbidly, yet beautifully, honest direction. “I’ve got some money/that we could spend/I bet you’d like that,” he trails. “We’re falling in love again.” Joyce Manor tells an almost annoyingly relatable story about relationships—a difficult feat.

With only ten songs lasting just a few seconds longer than 19 minutes, Never Hungover Again is the band’s longest album yet. The best one yet, as well? Well, no. To be fair, it’s near impossible to top the band’s first, self-titled LP released in 2011. With a single like “Constant Headache” on the first full-length, there’s a stubborn reminder that one perfect album’s not enough.

A defining aspect of Joyce Manor’s persona is the fact the band knows it couldn’t be topped. And really, Joyce Manor didn’t want to top its previous releases.

The second album, Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired Of, via Asian Man Records, was a clean cut away from the loud, punchy, resonating songs found on their self-titled. Rather, the sophomore album was a lo-fi, explorative, Britpop-influenced record. Never Hungover Again is the perfect combination of the first two albums.

Throughout the years, Joyce Manor has grown from playing DIY basement shows to opening for Conor Oberst’s Desaparecidos, and will be touring later this year with Brand New, headlining a few shows of their own along the way. Regardless of the absolute explosion of fans that have emerged since “Constant Headache,” the group has remained humble. Maybe it’s because they’re from California, or maybe it’s because they’re simply intelligent dudes. Straightforward. No time for vanity. It’s the simple “Fuck it” attitude of these guys that make Joyce Manor so addictive.

Oh, one more thing: Hi, Frances.

Joyce Manor – Never Hungover Again tracklist:

  1. “Christmas Card”
  2. “Falling in Love Again”
  3. “End of the Summer”
  4. “Victoria”
  5. “Schley”
  6. “Heart Tattoo”
  7. “The Jerk”
  8. “In the Army Now”
  9. “Catalina Fight Song”
  10. “Heated Swimming Pool”
Album-art-for-Amnesia-by-Amanda-X Amanda X – Amnesia

★★½☆☆

Lyrics about romantic conflict mingle with genres everywhere from dreamy pop to post-punk to straight-forward rock in Amanda X’s Amnesia. The three friends from Philadelphia—guitarist Cat Park, drummer Tiff Yoon, and bassist Kat Bean—have shared the stage with the likes of Parquet Courts, Protomartyr, Dum Dum Girls, and Scott & Charlene’s Wedding. Amnesia, via Siltbreeze Records, is the band’s follow-up to the 2012 premiere EP, Ruin the Moment.

The repetitive, seemingly disingenuous record is not remotely musically offensive—it’s actually very easy on the ears. Unfortunately, Amanda X’s latest release suffers from more nuanced problems. Amnesia has all of the trappings of a cool, breathy, thoughtful record, without any of the associated punch or genuine feelings backing it.

Park’s vocals are sweet and playfully whining. In the fuzzy, beachy rock ditty “Trouble” she sings, “Oh I know baby you’re trouble/But for now I want you to stay/And in time we’ll get through this together/But for now we’ll look the other way/But for now I want you to stay/But for now I want you to stay/But for now I want you to stay/But for now I want you to stay…” Everyone enjoys hearing the story of someone making a bad call, because they’ve been there before themselves. However, in the case of “Trouble,” no one’s buying it.  The band’s rock sound and musical sensibilities suggests Amanda X is smarter than how the band is portraying itself.

The trio sounds like a cool girl band, so it’d be great if the songs passed the Bechdel test.

Amnesia is not bad in terms of a generic auditory ranking system. Its playful twists on genres, steady rhythms, and hazy sounds amount to fun ambiance, but lyrically the album can be so impertinent, unmoving, and superficial that it becomes loath-able. “Things fall apart and down I go/I’ll split myself in two/So you can see inside,” Park croons in the slowed down, “Things Fall Apart.” This track speaks to the entire effort of the album to be an exercise in ‘it’s not what is said, but how it’s said.’ Either due to the delivery or the overwhelming sense that Amanda X is fighting the battle of who can care less, the alleged struggle in “Things Fall Apart” doesn’t seem real, let alone anything akin what Chinua Achebe would write about. The album explores emotional situations without any feeling to fuel it.

The exception to this floaty black hole of emotion is the record’s closing track, “Friendly Tones.” Stripped down to guitar strums and picks, Park sings, “You used to make this claim that/I used to get so mad/I almost walked away/But it turned out fine/Yeah, I’ll be fine.” The rest of the band joins her in a round of breathy vocals, singing, “Fine.”

While it’s obvious that everything probably isn’t “fine,” “Friendly Tones” is the only song where some sort of genuine feeling surfaces.

The record spends so much time in a state of aloofness that it can be easy to forget real women and not fictional characters wrote the record. Ostensibly, that could have been the intention. With a name like Amnesia, it’s possible that this compilation of tracks was intended to give the impression of fragments—both in memories and personalities.

Not liking what Amanda X and Amnesia are on paper is difficult. They seem like other great bands, but they fall short. Are they being graded on a patriarchal curve due to an engrained gender bias? Is it a matter of expecting better from an all-female band?  Is there a requirement for female musicians to give more than what would be expected from a male dream pop trio? Maybe they can just be blamed for not being what one would want them to be. In truth, there’s not a good answer to any of those questions. All that’s left to be said is the record is simply boring.

Amanda X – Amnesia tracklist:

  1. “Guatemala”
  2. “Dream House”
  3. “Things Fall Apart”
  4. “Tunnels”
  5. “Nothing Wild”
  6. “Parsnip”
  7. “Low & Mean”
  8. “Paranoia”
  9. ”Trouble”
  10. “Woke Up”
  11. “Friendly Tones”
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”