April 24th, 2020

The Homeless Gospel Choir – This Land Is Your Landfill (A-F Records)

This album is a change in direction for Derek Zanetti, whose act used to consist of “his voice, his emotions, and his acoustic guitar.” The Pittsburgh native has an actual band now, playing louder and faster than his previous work, moving from indie-folk-punk to pretty straightforward punk rock. What has not changed is the content. This Land Is Your Landfill is protest music and social commentary focusing primarily on politics and mental health issues, but occasionally branching out into people just being generally shitty to each other. 

Truthfully, I tend to shy away from anything that labels itself as ‘protest music’. The lyrics of such artists are usually angry and so on-the-nose that the lack of creativity is cringeworthy. Derek and his new crew don’t suffer from that problem, most of the time. I mean, the album opener, “Global Warming” is exactly what you would expect it to be: a condemnation of politicians using the destruction of the planet as a rally flag for personal freedoms. But throughout the rest of the album, things get more nuanced. “Lest We Forget” is a plea for people to just stop being dicks to each other. “You Never Know” is a ballad about taking personal everything that you read or see or hear, and is probably my favorite track on the record. 

Derek’s acoustic guitar makes enough of an appearance to feel like he is sticking to his roots, but the band really fleshes out the quality of the production, adding a depth of emotional field that is new for The Homeless Gospel Choir. Unlike other acts in this particular milieu, no two songs sound alike and every song feels like it was given the appropriate amount of attention to give it life. 

This is what punk is supposed to be. 

FFO: Desaparecidos, These United States

Hazel English – Wake UP! (Polyvinyl)

We all have a type, no matter what we’re talking about: companions, food, fashion, television – and especially music.  Sometimes, it’s hard to admit that, as we all feel that we need to be “varied” and “diverse” in our musical loves.  But it’s okay to be unapologetic and just listen to what makes you feel good!  Are 90% of your playlists 90s hip-hop?  Or hair bands?  Maybe you’re partial to Scandinavian symphonic metal, because who isn’t?

There’s value in broadening your horizons, of course; you’ll never find your next favorite genre or artist otherwise.  But sometimes, you just gotta lean into what you know.  Comfort food for your ears, basically.  And that’s what Hazel English’s debut album, Wake UP!, was for me.  It’s wispy, it’s poppy, it’s upbeat, and it’s my mashed potatoes.  It’s a bonus that the album is actually good.

It’s a formula that is far from new, and Hazel doesn’t teach it any new tricks here.  Instead, she brings the best possible product to the forefront.  Her vocals are big enough to match the sweeping guitar and drums backing her, but still soft and tender at the same time.  The lyrics aren’t overly complicated, and in this application, they really shouldn’t be.  “Less is more” is the motto here, and it works – especially in some of the softer, slower tracks, like “Combat” and “Work It Out”.  “Shaking” is also a standout track, and really shows off Hazel’s vocal range and nuance.

This one may fly under the radars of many, but it is well worth a listen.  It’s extremely polished for a first full-length release, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.

FFO: Alvvays, HAIM, Haerts

Katatonia – City Burials (Peaceville Records)

It isn’t often that bands can switch gears without stirring up a sort of low-key controversy. That is especially true if the band happens to be Swedish death/doom metal. It’s a tag that likes to cling in perpetuity. Katatonia had a problem in the late 1990s that generally results in the end of the band: their vocalist could no longer perform their songs. Rather than throw in the towel, they decided to branch out, listening and experimenting with metalcore, prog, and other forms of rock. The result was masterful. 

They have successfully integrated harmonious clean vocals with riff-heavy, groove-ready guitar pieces. They’ve taken gothic themes, dark poetry, and death metal sensibilities and turned it into something more accessible to a wider audience by utilizing an artful presence of electronic elements and song structures more akin to radio rock. 

It’s difficult for me to say whether City Burials is a “better” album than The Fall of Hearts or Dead End Kings, as those are pretty stellar as well. But I think I LIKE it more. It feels like it falls more in line with other art metal acts like TOOL, rather than with stoner/art outfits like Paradise Lost and Amorphous, though there are still plenty of those elements as well. I continuously find myself unable to write about this album because I keep getting consumed by it. The songs flow effortlessly into each other, creating an immersive album experience in which Jonas’s warm, Nordic-opera voice is punctuated by dynamic, haunting musical movements. I can’t get enough.

FFO: Porcupine Tree, Anathema, Paradise Lost, TOOL

altopalo – farawayfromeverythingyouknow (altopalo)

the single trickiest part of reviewing this album is coaxing the word processing app to only use lowercase letters. the key word for farfromeverythingyouknow is texture. there are layers upon layers of electronic components, editing techniques, and creative application of many of the tools of pop identity. 

it is meant to be an exploration of the depths of the human emotional psyche, taking stock of joys and sufferings, and determining what we are capable of. i found it very hard to find those messages as the lyrics are buried under monuments to unconventional production. 

the album opener, “am i am”, sees ruptured-speaker drum sounds periodically interrupting a serene and wispy indie-pop ballad. “honey” shows us that the group can open up a bit and build from shoegaze electronica to a borderline-danceable pop beat. “letdown” is an homage to Amnesiac-era Radiohead, with a simple, downplayed melody and half-mumbled falsetto vocals. 

everything i’ve said makes it seem like i failed to enjoy myself while listening to this album, but i assure you that is not the case. the inventive madmen behind this opus are asking us to challenge our awareness of ourselves by pitting sonic questions about expectations. it’s a puzzle. you’re the puzzle. attempt to solve it.

FFO: David Lynch movies, Bjork demos, Thom Yorke in a blender

BC Camplight – Shortly After Takeoff (Bella Union)

There are not enough words in the English language to describe this album, but unfortunately, I’m American and only speak almost-one language. Here goes:

Brilliant. Masterful. Perverse. Unhinged. Genius. Theatrical. Insightful. Pensive. Unwell. Sarcastic. Funny.

This is the perfect album for anyone who has ever had a thought that they wish they hadn’t. Or for anyone who thinks they had a thought, but their face didn’t comply and revealed a different thing so others only know the thought that their face thought, not the thought that they think they thought. 

Follow that? It’s cool, I wrote it and I didn’t either. 

Shortly After Takeoff is a musical melange. It combines ‘60s rock, space rock, Belle and Sebastian ballad, chorale, ‘80s synth pop, indie and horror-pop. But it doesn’t blend them, it shakes them up and places them next to each other like tossed dominoes. Lyrically, it combines Beck’s sense of humor with Elliott Smith’s sense of crippling depression, sung with a sweet lightness that takes you on a rollercoaster of emotional torment. The absurdity of some of the more depressing lyrics is enough to make you laugh, then feel terrible that you just laughed at someone baring their mental illness. The good news is: that’s the intention.

FFO: Jamie Lidell, Lambchop, Ben Folds, Belle and Sebastian

Danzig – Sings Elvis (Cleopatra)

You guys. It’s Danzig. He’s singing Elvis songs. 

I don’t know who needed this album. Maybe just Danzig. The point is, it sounds ESSSACLY like you think it would. It’s not terrible. It’s certainly not great. 

One day, we’ll all look back and say, “Remember that time Danzig made a whole album of Elvis tunes?” Some of us will say, “Nope”. Others will be like, “Oh yeah. When was that?” Then Dan will remind us that, “Dude, that was last week.”

See, because we’ll forget this in a week.

FFO: aging rockers, slowly losing it

RVG – Feral (Fat Possum Records)

I present to you the opening lyrics to the opening track from the album, “Alexandra”:

Come Monday morning/You may find me dead/You may not find my body/But you may find my head/In a motel closet/Or under a motel bed/Oh, this is the life that I lead

Hell of an introduction, no?

Melbourne’s RVG is the brainchild of one Romy Vager, and Feral represents their second full-length dive into madness.  I typically hate the “post-” genre labels, but this is about as post-punk-y as you can get.  Edgy, hinged-but-just-barely lyrics, splattered atop a pleasant, melodic backdrop.  You’re not gonna find any deviation from the formula here, and the album is better for it.

A few more examples of the dark lyrics include the aptly-named “Christian Neurosurgeon” (“I wake up in the morning / Cut open your brain / I go to bed in the evening / I get down and I pray”), and the creepy glass-half-full anthem “Perfect Day” (“I only want you to see the things that I think you deserve”).  The other tracks on Feral are varying degrees of unsettling as well.  But, as is often the case, there is beauty encased within the walls of chaos.  There is also a greater good at play here, as mentioned by Romy herself in a recent interview with The Guardian: “I like to heighten drama to make reality feel easier sometimes.” Mission accomplished, you crazy bastard.

FFO: Alice Bag, The So So Glos

The Used – Heartwork (Hopeless Records)

I should’ve been a fan of The Used back in the day.  Their emo-adjacent punk style would’ve intersected with many of the bands I listened to (Yellowcard, Brand New, Sugarcult, and like a hundred others).  But I never really fell into them, despite their popularity at the time.  There’s no time like the present to remedy that.

Heartwork is an interesting stylistic intersection of then (“Blow Me”, “1984 (infinite jest)”) and now (“Cathedral Bell”, “Clean Cut Heals”).  Oftentimes, a group that has gone a long period without a release (2009’s Artwork was The Used’s last release before Heartwork) will go in one of the two directions.  Doing both in the same album takes a boatload of skill to pull off, and Heartwork does it beautifully.

Mark Hoppus (“The Lighthouse”) and Travis Barker (“Obvious Blasé”) both feature, and that’s enough for me to want a Blink/Used tour.  Heartwork is proof that, even after 10+ years, The Used still has tons in the tank – as well as proof that they’re not just looking for a paycheck.  This is a great album, when a crap album would’ve sold just fine based on nostalgia value alone.  Consider me thoroughly impressed.

FFO: Yellowcard, Brand New, Sugarcult, and like a hundred others

Rose McGowan – Planet 9 (Damage Inc)

I did not expect to utter the phrase “I’m rocking a club banger by Rose McGowan right now” at any point in my life, but here we are.

Rose has never been a stranger to running counter to standard, established norms, and Planet 9 serves as a stark reminder of that.  This isn’t your expected release from a megastar of her stature: no staid pop songs, and no tame pieces that belong in a musical.  Not that either of those are bad!  It’s just that this is… not those things at all.  It takes a level of fearlessness to release something so different, especially when you’re already such a known quantity.  Luckily, Rose has had fearlessness in spades for a long time, and Planet 9 is made all the better for it.

There’s a heavy electronica influence (I guess trip hop if I had to further suss it out), but calling it simply an “electronica album” gives it short shrift.  Rose does wonders with her voice, making it the focal point of every track – and not just because it drowns out everything behind it.  Her singing voice definitely belongs in another galaxy, like a warm breeze laden with space dust and alien radio waves.  The aforementioned club banger “Now Your Here” displays that quality well, as does “We Are Free”.  She also lays down some solid spoken word work (“Lonely House”, most of “Origami”).  Rose is in complete control at all times, with an effortless sound that comes through impeccably at all times.

The lyrics are mostly short, rhythmic, repeating, and not too heavy, but a few exceptions come to mind: the aforementioned “Lonely House”, which is a strong social call-to-arms (“I am an alabaster illuminati, sent to destroy”), and “Origami”, which discusses vaginal exploration in artistic detail.  There are some longer-than-usual tracks, with “Green Gold” and “Lonely House” both clocking in at 7+ minutes long, but none of the tracks overstay their welcome.

If you don’t count the one-off “RM486” song from 2015, then Planet 9 marks Rose‘s first release.  I’m certain she has many irons in the fire at all times, and as such I’m not holding my breath for a sophomore effort.  But if we’re lucky enough to get one, I’ll be here for it.

FFO: Sneaker Pimps, Massive Attack, Morcheeba

Other Lives – For Their Love (ATO Records)

Haunting and majestic, Oklahoma’s Other Lives has a way of creating a feeling of intensity, despite the music itself being on the side of mellow. Every song on For Their Love feels like the moment of epic climax to whatever movie you’re thinking of. The character has come to the point where he is realizing that a decision has to be made. The look on his face is strained as the war within himself comes to a head. Does he make the sacrifice that he has been dreading? Are the ends going to justify the means? Is he good enough to meet the challenge head on?

The influences on the record are too numerous to name, steeped in Americana and western folk and tinged with psychedelia, garage, and indie-rock. Not all, but many of the tunes are about an internal struggle, an ominous existential crisis on the horizon. Each song presents a piece of a story. It is always a different story, so we never know the background or the outcome. But the mental fracas is obvious and hard to turn away from. 

I don’t know precisely what it is about the album that keeps drawing me back to it. I know there are other albums that deserve my attention, but For Their Love has a magnetic quality that has me locked in. It is not the catchiest record to come out this month. It is not the most technically impressive. There is no show of amazing vocal prowess or instrumental virtuosity. But who among us has answered the age old question of attraction? Maybe I have, at this moment, an emotional need for denouement. Maybe you will find the same connection. 

FFO: Shearwater, The Heavy, Dr. John, Silversun Pickups

Dance Gavin Dance – Afterburner (Rise)

For their 9th full-length studio album, DGD is making a good argument toward popularizing their particular brand of multi-dimensional loud rock. Effortlessly drawing together components of emo, metalcore, indie-pop, prog, and psychedelia, the Californian quintet is a ball of unquenchable energy. 

Afterburner also presents quite a few changes for the band. They experiment with funk, lay heavily into the pop/metal hybrid thing and “Calentamiento Global” even sees a use of latin music, spanish lyrics, and a 311-esque vibe.

The stand-out track to me is “Strawberry’s Wake”, a fun-filled romp aimed at self-esteem and mental well-being. It is somewhat unsettling that a “metal” band takes a positive approach to topical discussion within their lyrics. I’m not mad at it, but it’s an odd mood to be in: wanting loud, intense tunes with a positive outlook. 

I think this will require further investigation. 

FFO: The Mars Volta, Thursday, Coheed and Cambria, Issues

AWOLNATION – Angel Miners & The Lightning Riders (Better Noise Music)

This has the singular honor of being the first record since the reboot of this blog that I am reviewing on vinyl. As such, you can probably guess that I began this review with a distinct bias. Yes, I’m a fan.

Aaron Bruno and Co. are among the best of the best at creating steering-wheel thumpers void of any specific musical influence. They are also among the most consistent. This is the third album to be published in the last 6 years, and the fourth overall. It is also every bit as cool as the previous work. 

While it is not quite as “organic” as the last album (Here Come The Runts), Angel Miners & The Lightning Riders has a larger appeal, taking an approach closer to the EP that made them a household name (Back From Earth). The songs are percussion heavy, blasting the speakers with kick drum and cymbal crashes. Aaron’s voice drips honey, belts out indiscretions, and shrieks like a rent heart, occasionally all in the same song (“Battered, Black & Blue”, “Slam [Angel Miners]”). In other tracks, his schizophrenic approach to singing leads to Beastie Boys-like, anti-melodic wailing (“Half Italian”). Nearly every song on the record could be a radio single, and I actually mean that as a compliment. The exception to that is the album closer, “I’m A Wreck”, which is a bipolar face-punch of a song that starts as something of an apology for saying hurtful things and ends with him screaming “you’re a fake motherfucker/I can’t take it anymore”. 

IF I were to complain about anything, it would be the jarringly out-of-place “Pacific Coast Highway In The Movies”, in which Rivers Cuomo makes an appearance. It’s not that the song is bad, but from concept to vibe it doesn’t match the rest of the record. It’s not the only one that feels like it was written just for fun, with no agenda, but it feels sterile and lifeless in comparison to the others. 

For the foreseeable future, I will keep my biases. AWOL has earned them. 

FFO: Beck, Young The Giant

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