The First Quarter of 2013 in Music

14 Jun

Almost exactly three months ago I posted this article with a list of twenty albums in alphabetical order which I had purchased in the first quarter of 2013.  The intent was to have the article out by mid-April.  In classic SHH fashion I decided that it would be better to do a review of twenty albums as opposed to ten, or say five, because quality and quantity ensure that I never meet my writing goals and the website can go for weeks without anything of substance to read.  I try is all that I can say…

2013 has been a great year so far for music and the albums highlighted below represent only a fraction of those that were worth buying in the first quarter.  Enjoy!

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A$AP Rocky - Long.Live.A$AP1.  A$AP Rocky – Long.Live.A$AP

 A$AP Rocky is dismissed as much as he is praised.  I can see both sides of the argument in my own little myopic, white boy private Idunno:

One side wants to call the young man a boy (he’s only 24) and deny his hypothetical ascent to donning the NYC crown, let alone some sort of knighthood.  The two artists who share that crown (as far as I’m concerned) are Nas and Jay-Z for their debut albums Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt; please keep in mind that these men teeter on both ends of 40-years-old and released their best work in their 20s.  The only collective New York rap force that was as strong as Nasty Nas and Hova is Wu-Tang Clan…Ghostface, Method Man, Raekwon, ODB, RZA, GZA, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, etc…  That is, of course, if 80’s rap and hip hop is excluded.  A$AP does happen to be named after Rakim, one half of Eric B. & Rakim.  Those giants account  for Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island…3 of the 5 boroughs of NYC.  

The Bronx has been struggling since the the mid 90s output of Dr. Octagon and Big Pun (God rest his pistol-whipping ass…and screw Fat Joe).  A$AP is from Harlem.   Harlem is also home to his idols the Diplomats and Cam’ron, but Rocky has surpassed all of them in talent (but for Cam’ron on a good day/album).  And there you have a brief and pointless history of NYC rap in a review about A$AP Rocky…

The other side of the argument (the one mentioned so long ago before my mind let a silly tangent branch and extend) is willing to give credit where credit is due.  Sure, Rocky signed a major contract with Sony, and by “major” I mean for a shitload of money.  After A$AP’s early mixtape success Sony placed a bet, and a risky one.  It’s paying off.

Rocky begins with the title track–a menacing dirge (“I thought I’d probably die in prison”) is balanced by the velvety falsetto hook (“Who said you can’t live forever lied”).  Some tracks like “PMW (All I Really Need)” and “Fuckin Problems” rehash an even more delinquent “Cash, Money, Hoes” attitude but are delivered with a curled lip.  Rocky really shows promise in his repping NYC but with a willingness to step outside some real or imagined boundaries.  He meshes well with young West Coast mavericks in Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q, Santigold and, most impressively, that ADHD electro-spaz Skrillex (seriously…I don’t know how he pulls that off).  Case in point closer “Suddenly” is an unmistakable slow-building, string-accompanied homage to the East Coast masters but he isn’t afraid to throw a little Bone Thugz in there.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Long Live A$AP,” “Wild For the Night” and “Suddenly”

Rating: ****

Autre Ne Veut - Anxiety2.  Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety

The initial anxiety behind Autre Ne Veut is the correct pronunciation of the artist in public.  As an idiot who went around some years ago referring to the man behind For Emma, Forever Ago as “Bonn Eye-vur,” eliciting the same glares that one gets in a record store if he says he wants to purchase some “vinyls,” I made sure to do my homework (read: call a friend who took French in high school…yes, I’m that much of  tool).  The name is pronounced something along the lines of “oh-tray nay voo” and roughly translated means “I want no other.”  Once you’re past that anxiety you have almost 40 minutes of great, sexy pop to enjoy.

Anxiety does resurface, however, in the lyrics.  Ironically, some of the most sensual tracks on the album tell nail-biting tales of emotional mis-communication and failing relationships.  Producer Arthur Ashin pleads to a lover that he never be left alone on “Play By Play.”  In the follow-up “Counting” he worriedly counts on the idea that his lover will stay over squelching horns and sporadic production, but one gets the impression that it’s a countdown.

Ashin’s pop sensibility is delightfully twisted with help from former college roommate and fellow, Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never.  Thusly, a track like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” owe as much to modern experimental ambience and electronic dinosaurs like Kraftwerk (there’s a bit of “Endless Endless” in there) as it owes to Whitney Houston.  All in all Anxiety remains sexy despite the string of poppy panic attacks.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Play By Play,” “Ego Free, Sex Free” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”

Rating: ****

Chelsea Light Moving - Chelsea Light Moving3.  Chelsea Light Moving – Chelsea Light Moving

I took another chance in pre-ordering the most recent project of indie rock legend Thurston Moore some months ago in Chelsea Light Moving’s self-titled debut.  Moore’s recent solo albums, though enjoyable, were awfully quiet in comparison to Sonic Youth’s noisy, heyday records.  This could be due in part to the disintegration of his marriage with Sonic Youth bandmate Kim Gordon.

Moore reassuringly chants “Be a warrior and love life” on the sweet little starter, “Heavenmetal,” which is by far the poppiest song on the record; it does little to forecast the welcome return of loud, sludgy noise a la Sonic Youth’s mid-80s catalog.  “Alighted” is almost eight minutes of hefty plug and chug guitar.  Before its racing conclusion, the sluggish grunge of “Groovy & Linda” is an unpredictably satisfying meeting ground between Nirvana on barbituates and the darker side of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

Chelsea Light Moving is also weighted in literary references.  Moore memorializes NYC poet Frank O’Hara on “Frank O’Hara Hit,” which tells the story of his untimely death.  Moore tips his hat to William S. Burroughs on “Burroughs.”  Moore has referred to CLM’s sound as “Burroughs Rock.”  A more appropriate term, and one that Burroughs and visual artist Brian Gysin coined, is “Cut and Fold.”  While working on his masterpiece, Naked Lunch, Burroughs cut pages of prose and rearranged the pieces with other fragments resulting in a sometimes fitting, sometimes dissonant potpourri.  One gets a similar impression in listening to Chelsea Light Moving; the record has everything from spoken word to a Germs cover.  It’s good to hear Thurston getting noisy again and Chelsea Light Moving’s debut is exciting even in the wide wake of Sonic Youth’s sad disbandment.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Alighted,” “Groovy & Linda” and “Frank O’Hara Hit”

Rating: ***

David Bowie - The Next Day4.  David Bowie – The Next Day

The Next Day is Bowie’s first proper record in a decade.  Reports of the upcoming record came along with the unfortunate news that Bowie’s touring days are over. Though disappointing it is difficult to blame the musical magnate; Bowie is now 66-years-old and he had to undergo emergency heart surgery in 2003 during his last tour in Europe.  

Before listening to the record it is important to note the album cover.  Bowie, in bordering on scandalous, has plastered a simple white square with the album title over the top of his iconic Heroes cover, crossing out the title with a a simple, bold strikethrough.  The title track makes all the more sense as it could have began Heroes, though it is a morbid take.  Bowie, bordering at times on a Johnny Rotten-esque shriek, sings “Here I am / not quite dying, / my body left to rot in a hollow tree.”

There is a strange, almost meta-Bowie theme to the record as it unfolds.  It almost sounds as though a very talented Bowie cover artist had discovered b-sides from Bowie circa late 70s.  “Where Are We Now?” is something in between a slowed down “When You’re a Boy” and “Fantastic Voyage.”  The howling intro to “If You Can See Me” evoke the jungle chases on Lodger. “How Does the Grass Grow” has the same feedback squeal of “Heroes.”

That isn’t to say that the songs are bad by any standard; they just seem somewhat predictable–Bowie being Bowie.  There are a few corkers to balance the weaker tracks on the album (read: “I’d Rather Be High”  The contrived political rant combined with laughably terrible lyrics have me hoping that it is a joke).  The arresting “Valentine’s Day” tells the story from the pseud0-conscience of a school shooter.  The coda, “Heat,” is the most captivating track on the record from an instrumental standpoint.  Bowie achingly sings “And I tell myself I don’t know who I am.”  That’s doubtful.  You’re god damn David Bowie!

Returning to the album cover, I excitedly assumed that the record was going to be structured like his Berlin Trilogy, especially Low (my favorite Bowie record); less than a dozen tracks with an instrumental back end would have been more welcome.  Either way, Bowie’s legacy will live on through the next day and the next and another day.

Noteworthy Tracks: “The Next Day,” “Valentine’s Day” and “Heat”

Rating: ***1/2

Ex Cops - True Hallucinations5.  Ex Cops – True Hallucinations

Although the album begins on a dark, brooding note with “S&HSXX,” Ex Cops’ debut record, True Hallucinations, is one of the sunniest records to come out this year.  The Brooklyn duo of Brian Harding and Amalie Bruun have a wonderful gift for melody and harmony.  There is no shortage of snaring hooks and their nigh-androgynous but complimentary vocals settle like a bourbon in your chest, simultaneously sweet and warming.

Ex Cops throw a dreamy, early 4AD spin on multiple iterations and generations of pop/rock.  The result is half an hour of what sounds like two children covering their favorite songs which happen to be their own originals.  Some hat-tips are more obvious than others; the drum shuffle and buzzing bass of “Nico Beast” appropriately sounds like the  ’67-era Velvets were taking Ambien as opposed to acid.  True Hallucinations also has a twinge of GreatBritpop at its core.  “Spring Break,” the most addicting song on the album, feels like (The Bellshill Beach Boys) Teenage Fanclub in pop overdrive.  When Harding begins to sing on “Jazz and Information” one is taken aback that it’s not Oasis’ Liam Gallagher.

For those of you that need a bit of gloom to balance candied pop you won’t find it True Hallucinations; but, if you are capable of suspending your own emotional unrest, there are 30 minutes of escapist fun to be had.

Noteworthy Tracks: “James,” “Spring Break (Birthday Song)” and “Billy Pressly”

Rating: ****

Foals - Holy Fire6.  Foals – Holy Fire

Oxford outfit Foals third LP, Holy Fire, finds them leaving some of their British peers like Bloc Party and Los Campesinos! in the dust.  All three bands have tried to find that delicate balance between post-punk and music to get people dancing at parties, the difference being that Foals continue to refine their sound while the others have been on a slow decline since their debut records.

On “Inhaler” singer Yannis Philippakis slowly builds up to an ironic shouting of “I can’t get enough space!”  Space is exactly what Foals establish on Holy Fire.  The songs are richer and have enough space to fill a stadium, something which points to the type of venue that Foals are capable of playing.  Single “My Number” is almost obnoxious in how catchy it is.  The plucked guitar which sounds like a Gang of Four riff on ecstasy and manic chorus call for a equitably obnoxious, finger-pointing dirvish.  The quiet groove of “Late Night” and the shimmering, U2-fueled “Milk & Black Spiders” more than make up for some of the boredom in tracks like “Out of the Woods” and “Stepson.”  If there is one criticism to note it is that the album is slightly top-heavy.  

Holy Fire finds Foals at their most polished and accessible yet and it lends itself nicely to repeat listens.  It is just shy of awesome and shows a lot of promise for future releases as long as they consciously avoid the pitfalls of radio-ready pop/rock: focus on the album, not the next single.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Inhaler,” “My Number” and “Milk & Black Spiders”

Rating: ****

Foxygen - We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic7.  Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic

Foxygen are likely to be chalked up as “revivalists” along with some of the more interesting contemporary acts in Tame Impala and Girls (before their disbandment), but what sets them apart is that they 1) lack the stylistic focus of Tame Impala and 2) they have a more obvious sense of humor about their shameless genre-hopping than Girls.

The bold title is enough to elicit a chuckle, not to mention their sticker self-endorsements on the cover: “Our best album yet” and “The only real ‘end of the world’ record out there.”  The multi-intstrumentalist duo of Jonathan Rado and Sam France spearheaded the project that is Foxygen, a comprehensive vision of rock music from 1965 through 1980, when they were high school seniors.

The album begins with a bizarro “Sgt. Pepper’s” complete with a familiar crowd’s hand-clapping on “In the Darkness.”  Singer Sam France follows with “No Destruction” sounding like something in between a slow Jagger and an excited Dylan over what feels like a borrowed CCR jam.  The record dips shamelessly in and out of traditional rock, folk, psychedelia, synth pop, glam and baroque pop.  At first We Are the 21st seems like a somewhat successful “throw [everything] at the wall” exercise, but after multiple listens one realizes that there is way more stuck on the wall than was initially anticipated.

Noteworthy Tracks: “No Destruction,” “San Francisco” and “Shuggie”

Rating: ****1/2

Girls Names - The New Life8.  Girls Names – The New Life

I pre-ordered The New Life from Slumberland Records after I received the title track single in the mail some months ago.  The new album is titled appropriately and is a welcome departure from their sometimes recklessly noisy debut Dead to Me.  Although it contains a two-minute helping of caterwauling feedback, the sprawling title track is balanced by dizzying guitar loops, a trance-like beat and an overall improvement in production.  This revamped production comes at the hands of none other than singer/guitarist Cathal Cully.

A few tracks into the album it is clear that noise has taken a back seat to post-punk and  new wave.  The New Life is a not so distant echo of Echo & the Bunnymen, complete with hints of psychedelia and surf rock to keep things interesting.  “Occultation” is reminiscent of The Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Cut Dead” but with a playfully brooding Joy Division tone.  “A Second Skin,” the album’s standout track, has a Josef K edge with a bit of Flock of Seagulls on the back end.  It exhibits the most complimentary instrumental interplay and Cully’s vocals, though not particularly strong, are stronger  and more congruous than elsewhere on the album.

The New Life is a marked advance beyond their sonically myopic debut and with Cully as adept as he seems to be in the studio all signs point to a bright (albeit musically dark) future.  The guitar hooks are tighter (“Notion”), the synth adds an important atmospheric element…Cully just has to find a voice that doesn’t get buried in the mix.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Drawing Lines,” “A Second Skin” and “The New Life”

Rating: ***

Grouper - The Man Who Died in His Boat9.  Grouper – The Man Who Died in His Boat

Grouper’s Liz Harris earned serious kudos for her 2008 LP Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill.  Five years later she releases material that was written concurrently but cast aside, or maybe adrift is more appropriate.  That material, which sounds like a darker companion to Deer, is The Man Who Died in His Boat.

Like Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill Harris employs the same minimalist approach to her uniquely forlorn dream pop: wispy, occasionally discernible vocals drenched in reverb, guitars that sound as though they are wind-strummed, unnerving ambience and cathartic, whirring lullabies.  There is once again a macabre backbone; both album titles contain conjugations of death; however, the deer carcass was being dragged upward in 2008 whereas one gets the impression that the dead man is spiraling on a flat plane if not slowly downward in 2013.  That isn’t to say that the album is entirely dismal.  Harris deftly walks the fine line between bottomless sorrow and the solace of embrace.  Sure, “Being Her Shadow” may sound mournful, but “Cover the Long Way” and “Difference (Voices)” act as a defroster.

The Man Who Died in His Boat allegedly owes its name to an image that is likely burned into Harris’ retinas.  As a teenager she and her father found an empty sailing vessel on Agate Beach in Oregon that had washed up on the shore.  There was no body on board although there were personal belongings which suggested that something untoward had happened.  It is no wonder that the album tonally resounds a young mind attempting to emotionally reconcile life’s inevitable conclusion.  The Man Who Died in His Boat is simultaneously eerie, icy, familiar and serene.  Grouper is one of the few acts out there that can boast that sort of an achievement.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Vital,” “Cloud in Places” and “The Man Who Died in His Boat”

Rating: ****

Iceage - You're Nothing10.  Iceage – You’re Nothing

Iceage’s second LP was the first album that I pre-ordered this year.  New Brigade was my No. 8 of 2011 and I was totally taken aback that a band from Copenhagen, Denmark could enliven the spirit and speed of late 80s D.C. punk.  I figured that total disappointment was out of the question.

I wasn’t sure what to make of You’re Nothing‘s first single, “Ecstasy,” which I caught the music video for after pre-ordering the album and prior to its proper release.  The gushing, live energy was still there but singer Elias Bender’s delivery was comparatively slowed down.  When I finally received You’re Nothing in the mail a few weeks later I spun it three or four times immediately and it began to make sense.

Whereas New Brigade was almost purely punk with an emphasis on breakneck speed and throttling percussion, You’re Nothing is more grounded in post-punk: the lyrics are becoming more contemplative (“There’s a guilt / Deep within, / In divine soil / Blossomed into sins.”), songs are beginning to break the three-minute mark and Bender exhibits confidence in his vocal experimentation.  You’re Nothing is a solid second step for a band that is clearly evolving ahead of the curve.  It may not be as dramatic as John Lydon’s shift from The Sex Pistols to PiL, but think of the difference between Wire’s Pink Flag and Chairs Missing, or later on in Washington D.C., Fugazi’s collaborative efforts of Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto versus their early work in Minor Threat and Rites of Spring respectively.

Last.fm tells me that You’re Nothing is one of my most listened to albums yet this year and I am not at all surprised.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Burning Hand,” “Morals” and “Rodfæstet”

Rating: ****1/2

Jacco Gardner - Cabinet of Curiosities11.  Jacco Gardner – Cabinet of Curiosities

Whereas some of his contemporaries span decades worth of musical influence, 24-year-old Jacco Gardner’s debut album, Cabinet of Curiosities, is a focused, trippy throwback to the late 60s where the innocence of baroque pop love songs met the lysergic acidity of psych pop.  Gardner also happens to be rather adept in the studio and as a mutli-instrumentalist he has assumed a Brian Wilson-like role as a musician/producer.  Perhaps that is why he chose to release music under his personal name as opposed to “The mad lib [fill in the fuit] [fill in the noun]” sort of kitsch that would have been easily conceived.

Cabinet of Curiosities is a well-orchestrated pastiche and homage to an era of under-appreciated bands on both sides of the Atlantic: The Left Banke, The Electric Prunes, The Zombies, The Association, Love, etc…  It is also the best stab at neo-baroque/psych since the modern afficianados in The Aislers Set and The Essex Green.  Jacco Gardner’s debut is highly listenable, but what may be holding him back is a pleasantly brain-racking single.  The sweet and tragic narrative of “The Ballad of Little Jane” is a single for sure, but one wonders why it plays at the very end of an album which has a threatened core in the redundancy of its title track.

Noteworthy Tracks: ***1/2

Rating: “Clear the Air,” “Help Me Out” and “The Ballad of Little Jane”

Low - The Invisible Way12.  Low – The Invisible Way

Slowcore staple Low return with their 14th studio album this year after a miraculous two decades of existence.  What’s miraculous is that slowcore is inherently limited as a genre and Low, fronted by Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, has managed to make a go of it for as long as they have.  One thing that has aided their stretching the genre’s claustrophobic boundaries is help from outside producers and for 2013’s The Invisible Way Low selected none other than Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.

Aside:  Low, among other seasoned veterans like Yo La Tengo and Neko Case, will be joining Wilco later this month at the Solid Sound Festival and Mass MoCA which I am happy to have a pair of tickets to.

Tweedy’s participation is fitting to the point of almost seeming natural.  It feels as though you are in the studio with the band.  On The Invisible Way one can pick up both the slow songcrafting of Being There and the reverb and repetition of A Ghost is Born.  The result is a modern sounding reevaluation of Low’s mid 90s releases.

Drummer/singer Mimi Parker also shares more vocal responsibility than on any other Low album for better or worse; for better because “So Blue,” “Holy Ghost” and “Just Make it Stop” are among the most exciting tracks on the album; for worse because Parker’s vocals make Sparhawk’s duds, particularly the intolerable, seemingly unending “happy birthday” conclusion to “On My Own,” that much more intolerable.  Parker’s vocals, propelled by a heady piano scale and gorgeous guitar-work respectively, “So Blue” and “Just Make it Stop” sound like straighter, serious takes on Mississauga Goddam era Hidden Cameras.

The Invisible Way will not go down as one of Low’s best records, but one must remember that that is contemplating Long Division, The Curtain Hits the Cast and Things We Lost in the Fire.  Rather, think of The Invisible Way as another well-written chapter in a book that could have ended a decade ago.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Plastic Cup,” “Holy Ghost” and “Just Make it Stop”

Rating: ***1/2

Mount Moriah - Miracle Temple13.  Mount Moriah – Miracle Temple

Mount Moriah’s debut was a bit of a surprise coming from the collaboration of the post-punk/alternative rock Bellarea’s Heather McEntire and bizzarro metal Horseback’s Jenks Miller.  Mount Moriah is a Southern folk band through and through.  In fact, McEntire’s vocals sound closer to a young Dolly Parton than anyone else and the band could be a sober Whiskeytown or an Aunt Tupelo.  Mount Moriah’s sound exudes a sense of lost familiarity: lonely summers, break-up album poignancy and even a bit of gospel.

Opener “Younger Days” has a tinge of good country and is told from a “townie” perspective: “Big city lights really gotta be a drag. / August is over, so when are you comin’ back?”  Contrary to the typical modern city light star-gazing equation McEntire takes the role of a girl who’s most comfortable in a rural college town, a girl that yearns for school to be back in session.

“Eureka Springs” is a contemporary treatment of Southern Rock complete with a Duane Allman/Dickey Betts guitar duo on training wheels.  McEntire further separates herself from her earlier vocal work by stretching “Carolina” to six syllables.  Her delicate delivery on “I Built a Town” and the vocal range exhibited on “Miracle Temple Holiness” is her most ear-opening work to date.

Mount Moriah is an unanticipated success story and Miracle Temple is the proof.  The album posits its listener back in a sweaty, summer college apartment (thought not on fire as the cover may suggest), but it’s an apartment that one remembers fondly.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Younger Days,” “I Built a Town” and “Miracle Temple Holiness”

Rating: ****

My Bloody Valentine - m b v14.  My Bloody Valentine – m b v

One of the biggest surprises in a year chock full of surprise releases is My Bloody Valentine’s first record in 22 years.  1991’s Loveless, the quintessential shoegaze record which sits at the very top of most every hipster’s list of the most important records of the 90s (or of all time, haha), set the bar so very high that perfectionist frontman Kevin Shields likely scared himself shitless as to how to orchestrate a follow-up record.  He made a number of promises to fans, particularly in the mid-late 90s, that a new release was pending.  Years passed and a new release became less an excitement than an unnecessary epilogue to a great book of music that many had closed.

Aside:  I was six-years-old when Loveless was released and I wasn’t aware of the album, or the band for that matter, until 2001.  Some hipster I am…  Knowing how important this release is I stiffened my rule about listening to an album at least ten times in its entirety before reviewing it; I upped it to twenty listens.  15 hours of listening later (excluding research) I should be able to speak intelligently on the subject.

In January of this year Shields nonchalantly mentioned that a new album would be coming out in a few weeks.  This frankly unfathomable release caused a major stir in the audiophile community with a 50/50 split of thrill and concern.  Fans, a number of which were born after the release of Loveless, were aching for fresh material, but synchronously feared that a new album could risk tarnishing My Bloody Valentine’s canonical reputation.

Before even hearing the record I noted the cover and economical, eponymous title; the cover alone shows a cooler, blue contrast to the warm, pinks and reds that adorn the blurred Fender cover of Loveless, and the lower-cased m b v imposes a familiarity with the band, assuming that the listener has a CD-R with that same acronym in permanent marker tucked away in a binder somewhere.  A single listen to the first half of the record would lead one to believe that, with the important exception of the a-side “new you,” m b v may be little more than a collection of melancholy Loveless era b-sides.  Shields readily admitted in interviews that more than half of the record was completed in the 90s.  One must of course remember that My Bloody Valentine records always appreciate with repeated listens and some half-buried hooks and production nuances do not makes themselves apparent until after a dozen listens.

The first couple of songs are not only familiar, they’re practically tycecast: heavily distorted guitars (Shields using his patented “glide guitar” on certain songs) and the tenuous androgyny of Kevin Shield’s and Bilinda Butcher’s filtered vocals.  There certainly could have been a stronger opener than “she found now” (think “Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)” and “Only Shallow”).  “who sees you” is another track recollective of the comparatively unimpressive tracks on Loveless (all two of them).

The slow, heartbroken organ and Butcher’s whispered coo on “is this and yes” act as a segue into the far more compelling second half of the record.  “new you” is about as poppy as My Bloody Valentine has ever been and as the only track that could be construed as a single.  That being said, the album never quite affords a moment of true pop bliss like “Blown a Wish.”

Aside:  I noticed while listening to “new you” that one of the popular tags for the song on Last.fm is “best song ever.”  Hysterical.

The most startling tracks are the triumvirate that close m b v with a wallop.  Shields finally allows percussion to take the forefront on “in another way” that plows along like a train through a dark tunnel.  “nothing is” takes percussion to the Nth degree with a three-and-a-half minute harsh and thunderous roar.  The grand finale, “wonder 2,” is the real gem of the album.  The track is the most inclusive and gives the listener the impression that they are parachuting during an air raid.  The sound is so unbelievably dense that it risks almost certain implosion; there is a sonic vacuum that seems to swallow everything but Shield’s vocals until he inevitably gets sucked up himself.

m b v is by no means My Bloody Valentine’s best record (nor their second best…Isn’t Anything is incredible) but it’s doubtful that that was its actual purpose.  At the very least it should dispel any superfan’s initial trepidation surrounding its release.  There was no question in my mind that Kevin Shields would release a good album, if he ever got comfortable with the idea that is.  The question was what new ground would be broken?  The answer is the darker, more panicked vibe of “wonder 2.”  The other question is will fans be made to wait another 22 years for a new release.  Kevin Shields is like a musical cicada…

Noteworthy Tracks: “only tomorrow,” “new you” and “wonder 2”

Rating: ****1/2

Phosphorescent - Muchacho15.  Phosphorescent – Muchacho

Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck took a likely much needed break after the sapping international tour for his ironically named 2010 album Here’s to Taking it Easy.  It was that tour that made him contemplate hanging up his spurs (pun intended?) altogether.  Thankfully, Houck instead took an extended sabbatical in Mexico where he did finally take it easy.  While in Mexico Houck conceived the majority of the songs that were to make up his sixth album Muchacho.

Houck broadens the instrumentation with the keys, horns, strings, synth and drum machines.  That combined with his gift for songwriting result in a brighter, bolder take on his mid-2000’s releases.   There is the country twang of “Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master),” the gringo waltz of “Muchacho’s Theme,” the Americana folk of “A New Anhedonia,” the grandiose ambience of “Song For Zula” and the glammy electro-rock of “Ride On / Right On.”  The album is all over the place but somehow never feels out of place.

Aside:  Houck adds extra flair (pun very much intended) to tracks like “Ride On / Right On” and “A Charm / A Blade” with tiny, echoed “Wooos!”

Despite the cheerful tone on a handful of tracks, there is definitely and underlying theme of self-destruction and self-loathing.  On “Muchacho’s Theme” Houck admits “I’ve been fucked up and I’ve been a fool.”  Though the brittle voice seems to be repenting in some way, one can’t help but feel that he’ll be back to his old tricks before too long.  “Muchacho” is the Spanish term for a young male given to misbehaving.

Muchacho is equally intoxicating and sobering; one song sounds like a boozy romp and the next feels like a blooshot stare in an early morning mirror.  Houck’s cunning synthesis of well-worn territory is nothing short of marvelous.  A less astute songwriter might have ended up with a recycled sounding bummer, but Muchacho glows with a warm brilliance that one might get from a Southern sunrise, or perhaps the painfully warm swallow of a tequila sunrise sans sunrise.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Ride On / Right On,” “A Charm / A Blade” and “Muchacho’s Theme”

Rating: ****1/2

Aside:  If you’re looking for a great soundtrack for Read Dead Redemption look no further than Muchacho.

Pissed Jeans - Honeys16.  Pissed Jeans – Honeys

Honeys, Pissed Jeans’ fourth LP, is without a doubt their best record.  Pissed Jeans’ sound is a mix of American Underground, grungy punk and just plain funny hard rock.  Where most punk or hardcore outfits are drenched in testosterone and aggression (fuck drugs, fuck the government, fuck you etc…), singer Matt Korvette’s lyrics channel the fever dreams of the male passive aggressor.

Pissed Jeans have created a 35-minute anthem for the struggling, lower middle class male pawn: a miserable 9 to 5’er with romantic reservations and General Anxiety Disorder.  The cover is actually perfect.  A “shirt and tie” (not a “suit” because “suit” implies more money and security) lays broken at the bottom of a staircase that leads to nowhere; a turtle of the same color exits a fishbowl to his right which may be the most creative metaphor for a cubie-dweller with a glass ceiling.

Tracks like “Bathroom Laughter” and “Romanticize Me” flesh out an emotionally desensitized man who is frustrated in his incapability to mollify/satisfy a lover, let alone offer them the emotional support that they require in turn.  “Vain in Costume” feels like a more sophisticated Mudhoney track where the narrator waxes un-poetically about how translucent his emotional facade is.

“Cafeteria Food” is the unmistakable pinnacle of Honeys.  Think of that one co-worker that you cannot stand and imagine them choking on a Lean Cuisine. Then imagine that you receive an obligatorily grieving email with a “ding” notifying you of the passing.  The track is genius and exemplifies the strange balance between reputable punk/rock and anxious kitsch that Pissed Jeans have finally achieved.  Honeys is a triumph.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Bathroom Laughter,” “Vain in Costume” and “Cafeteria Food”

Rating: ****

Rhye - Woman17.  Rhye – Woman

I was first introduced to Rhye by an article that was featured on gawker.com pointing to debut album Woman‘s 1) near universal acclaim, and 2) universal sex appeal.  My interest was piqued and so I ordered the record having only heard the first single, “Open.”  With a cover of a woman’s neck arched back in ecstasy, the album begins, after some soft strings that might have you think you’re hearing a ballad from the musical Once…, with the lines “I’m a fool for that shake in your thighs. / I’m a fool for that sound in your sighs.”  Definitely seemed like a between the covers affair.

Rhye is a duo comprised of vocalist Mike Milosh, yes that is a dude singing, and Copenhagen producer and one half of Quadron (who just released a record) Robin Hannibal, although the album seems purposely shrouded in anonymity as there is no mention of either gentleman specifically.  Instead both the Milosh and Hannibal families are thanked amongst a slew of other thank yous, namely Milosh’s wife and muse Alexa.

Aside:  Alexa happens to be the recently turned 21-year-old Nickelodeon child actress Alexa Nikolas.  I couldn’t help but feel like a dirty old man when I discovered this…

What’s remarkable about Woman is how tasteful it sounds in spite of the dripping, skin-on-skin sweat and its rich and diverse instrumentation (strings, horns, keys) that allow the tracks to swell without ever popping.  Milosh’s satiny smooth pillow talk delivery enhances the intimacy, though it’s never uncomfortable.  Honestly, the album would be start-to-finish fantastic if it weren’t for the somnambulated “One of Those Summer Days.”  In any event, practice safe Rhye.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Open,” “Last Dance” and “3 Days”

Rating: ****

Toro y Moi - Anything in Return18.  Toro y Moi – Anything in Return

Toro y Moi’s third album, Anything in Return, was a last minute pre-order addition to an early January amazon.com splurge following my Christmas bonus, and a splurge the likes of which I will not be able to afford again until January of 2014.  Since his 2010 debut Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bundick has been riding the unfortunately titled “chillwave” wave.  What differentiates Bundick from his contemporaries is that he continues to hone his craft and production skill where other artists have allowed for a creative recession.

One listen to Anything in Return will not do it justice, or at least not the way a single listen to 2011’s Underneath the Pine might.  There are tracks that will pop immediately.  The first single, “Say That,” is impossible to miss the first time around; however, one might not appreciate the slow yet immaculate build-up of the R&B “Rose Quartz” until half a dozen listens through.  Like his first two albums Anything is an hourglass record in that its fattest tracks are at the top and bottom.  The core songs, while not bad by any means, do more to form the syrupy, sad tone of the record.

Bundick has almost totally abandoned the guitar that marked his earlier work in favor of synth and a more confident vocal delivery and his new arrangements are meticulously detailed.  Anything follows in the same vein of the Freaking Out EP except that the mood is more subdued.  Bundick is still freaking out on Anything about the typical angst of young adult-hood, but he presents it in such a way that you find yourself playing the record while you’re hanging out (read: NOT chilling) with some buddies over beers.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Say That,” “Rose Quartz” and “Never Matter”

Rating: ***1/2

Veronica Falls - Waiting For Something to Happen19.  Veronica Falls – Waiting For Something to Happen

Veronica Falls had some pretty deep shoes to fill after their bombastic self-titled debut.  But for “Buried Alive” Waiting For Something to Happen is missing the quirky morbidity of the band’s early singles like “Found Love in a Graveyard” and “Beachy Head” which is part of what made their sound so unique and established them as something more than a Talulah Gosh reboot.  That is not to say that writing quality songs has fallen to the wayside; the songs have a new found gloss and are as ear-grabbing as ever and singer Roxanne Clifford’s vocals are once again bolstered affably by her male bandmates James Hoare and Patrick Doyle.

Waiting begins with “Tell Me” which borrows the ascending guitar of Television’s “Marquee Moon,” something which took me a few days to figure out and bothered the everloving shit out of me until I figured it out.  “Teenage” is a simple but endearing tale of not quite requited young love.  The jangling guitars on “Broken Toy”

The strongest one-two punch on the record comes on the flip side with “Everybody’s Changing” and “Buried Alive.”

Aside:  On “Everybody’s Changing” Clifford sings “Everybody’s changing / I remain the same.”  I said the same thing during the early stages of puberty.

As the lyrics go, the same could be said for the band.  Sure, the adventurousness of their debut is dialed down and the pop conventionality is cranked up, but Veronica Falls is still very much the same band.  As mentioned above “Buried Alive” pairs a sweet little melody with grim lyrics creating a poppier version of the compositional discord apparent on their self title.

While some fans of the firs album will undoubtedly register Waiting For Something to Happen as a stylistic retreat it would be difficult to make the argument that it isn’t listenable.  Though Waiting carries an air of predictability, it is likely less predictable than the pretentious “I like their early stuff” response to your defense.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Teenage,” “Broken Toy” and “Everybody’s Changing”

Rating: ***1/2


Wondrous Bughouse20.  Youth Lagoon – Wondrous Bughouse

Youth Lagoon’s Wondrous Bughouse is one of two sophomore albums that I pre-ordered this year without having heard a single track (the other being Iceage’s You’re Nothing).  Why is this significant?  I’m broke and I’m not a betting man, but with a debut as strong as The Year of Hibernation I refused to imagine my dissatisfaction in the follow-up.  As it turns out I was right (on both accounts).

With the aid of production wizard Ben H. Allen, Youth Lagoon’s Trevor Powers’ soundscapes on Wondrous Bughouse are richer in comparison to the debut; consider a song like “Mute” versus “17.”  The album is thematically steeped in youth (go figure), imagination (reference the album cover which looks like a 12-year-old was given a drawer full of magic markers and a few tabs of acid) and, somewhat surprisingly, mortality

Aside:  I happened to be reading Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes when I was listening to this album a lot.  The novel focuses on childhood, maturation, death and supernatural creatures; coincidentally, it turned out to be one of the most appropriate narratives to pair with the album.  Think of Trevor Powers’ creepy lyrics and the not-so-merry-go-round tune of “Attic Doctor.”

The album is impressive, but its enhanced production seems to disagree with YL’s sound/image on some level.  Don’t get me wrong, Wondrous Bughouse is more stunning with a pair of headphones on, but there was something more charming and intimate in the tiny bedroom pop sound of the debut.

Noteworthy Tracks: “Mute,” “Attic Doctor” and “Dropla”

Rating: ***1/2

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One Response to “The First Quarter of 2013 in Music”

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  1. The Self-Hating Hipster’s Top 50 Albums of 2013 | the self-hating hipster - March 26, 2014

    […] I wrote what I thought was an exhaustive review of 20 albums that were in my possession from the first quarter of 2013; five of the aforementioned 20 can be found on this list.  2013, plainly put, was a […]

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