We have another two-part Albums of the Month this month after taking August off. While in retrospect there were some hidden gems from August (Blowout, The Afterglows, Ka), September is so righteously stacked with quality music that a double dose was only fitting.
Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN
“Was it me you were thinking of, / All the time when you thought of me? / Or was it your mother? / Or was it your shelter? / Or was it another?”
Angel Olsen has spent her moments of spotlight treading an impossibly thin line, one precious few other artists have been able to navigate cleanly. Made famous by the incubator that is Will Oldham and his Bonnie “Prince” Billy act, Olsen has released four records that vacillate in aesthetic tone and message, yet still feel inextricably tied to a singular, artistic force. Strange Cacti, her 2011 debut, was a mystery of freaky lo-fi, following in the footsteps of many of her more famous contemporaries (Laura Marling, Maria Taylor, etc). 2012s Half Way Home was a more psychedelic and instrumentally driven folk chamber piece, fleshing out her production arm to the benefit of her incisive words. Her 2014 breakout Burn Your Fire For No Witness was big tent indie folk rock, fuzzying up the edges of her guitar tone, production and lyricism to achieve something closer to a large scale dramatic statement.
Her most recent record, MY WOMAN, grows from her previous three, improves upon them, and adds a healthy dollop of spectral doo-wop and retro-pop sensibility. Nowhere is this more cleanly evident than “Intern,” the opening track of the album and the first released track (advertised as a trailer). “Intern” is a warbling masterpiece of vulnerable pop determination. Within the first minute of the record, Olsen has espoused the virtue of persistence in the workplace (“no matter who you are or what you done / still gotta wake up and be someone”) and in romance (“I’m gonna fall in love with you someday / I’m gonna fall in love and run away”). Her vocal pep talk, over-layed with glassy synth (nary a folk note in sight) is a testament to that millennial determination in the face of being a lowly intern with no prospects. Things are hard kid, take it on the chin and move on.
Which is of course all the more powerful given Olsen’s voice and gender. MY WOMAN, obviously, concerns itself frequently with the idea of romantic possessiveness, willing to dive into the weaknesses of both parties in the face of insecurity. The trembling waltz-hop of “Never Be Mine” underscores sorrow of unrequited pining; two minutes later, Olsen has presumably taken a pull or two from a whiskey bottle and is all up in her man’s face with “Shut Up Kiss Me.” Her lilting alto is disturbing in its siren-like come hither tones. The first verse of “Shut Up Kiss Me” is all temptation, come ons disguised as hung-onto syllables; the chorus is deep-voiced demands, forceful, dangerous and insistent.
The breadth of Olsen’s musical history comes to the fore on disparate parts of MY WOMAN, which can sometimes cast the album as a less than cohesive whole. “Not Gonna Kill You” is a Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk number in every way, Olsen casting herself as almost a cult-like figure as the guitars and vocals descend into a cavern of reverb, lost to a hazy dream. Its power is only blunted being sandwiched between non-like-minded rock tunes “Give It Up” and “Heart Shaped Face.” “Not Gonna Kill You” is also the moment the record significantly slows down its frenetic, inventive pace. Tempos slow, Olsen settles into a bit of a crooner’s mindset, and the record ends with two of the last four tracks clocking in over seven minutes. Not bad, by any means — the two opuses are two of the stronger love songs on the record (the second one, “Woman,” contains the beautiful, wailed line “tell me that love isn’t true / I dare you to understand / what makes me a woman”), just that MY WOMAN can sometimes feel scattershot, full of great ideas that don’t fully gel.
Yet here one must acknowledge that MY WOMAN is, most evidently, idiosyncratic, thus not necessarily scattershot. Olsen has never been so clearly emotional, and her incisive words are as cutting as ever. From the couplet referenced in the previous paragraph to the opening quote, taken from “Heart Shaped Face,” Olsen places many of her stylistic experiments within the context of being a woman. Angel Olsen’s career could, pessimistically, sometimes be construed as Olsen drowning some of her more adventurous urges in favor of sticking with her cohort of freaky folk female artists like Marling, Taylor, Marissa Nadler, Johanna Warren, or even Joanna Newsom.
Yet like Newsom, Olsen sets MY WOMAN as a powerful vocalization of her own psyche, not what you might think of her. It may not hold together as a cohesive statement, but the brains of artists rarely do. Peep the cover art, for goodness’ sake — Olsen, gazing off into the middle distance, not sexualized or stylized. The portrait of an artist as a full entity, standing alone. MY WOMAN cleverly takes its title’s inherent possessiveness and turns it inward; Angel Olsen’s “woman” is on full display on her fourth record, and the results are powerful.
RIYL: Marissa Nadler, Fiona Apple, Patti Smith
Essential Tracks: “Intern,” “Shut Up Kiss Me,” “Heart Shaped Face,” “Sister”
Cymbals Eat Guitars – Pretty Years
In their seven-year LP release career, Cymbals Eat Guitars have released some really, truly terrible album covers. But Pretty Years takes the cake by a country mile; I mean, look at the thing. What’s that vacuum cleaner doing there? Where did Dracula go? Then the script, hanging above the David Lynch-ian proceedings like a specter, scrawled anything but pretty — what are we to expect from Joseph D’Agostino and his crew, finally sans any roster turnover between LPs for the first time in the band’s history?
Turns out, Pretty Years is the best Cymbals Eat Guitars record yet, a swirling rock near-masterpiece that defies categorization, ping-ponging from Elephant 6-esque baroque experimentation to The River-era E Street smooth road rock. Rarely has band turnover created such flux in the final product, but CEG making the glittering pop-rock of “Have a Heart” should almost be completely divorced from the math-y “… And the Hazy Sea.” Yet not a song in between, once “Have a Heart” ends, D’Agostino’s breathy lilt is guiding the listener through the saxophone charged skronk of “Wish,” a vision for a proggier Bruce Springsteen who took a hint from Bowie before making Born in the USA.
As comfortable as the references sometimes feel, Pretty Years is anything but safe. Fans of the band may be immediately off put by the synth-y melodies of this iteration of CEG, or even bothered that some of their Rogue Wave-era California lights ala 2014’s LOSE is gone, and won’t necessarily be mollified by the the album’s gorgeous centerpiece one-two punch of “Dancing Days” and ” 4th of July, Philadelphia (Sandy)”. Yet both are mile-long leaps forward for the band sonically, coupled together with D’Agostino’s further developing lyrical voice.
LOSE, the band’s 2014 aborted breakthrough, found D’Agostino moving more steadily toward his own voice, expressing the minuscule terrors of life through outsized dialogue that nonetheless dove headlong into the brain of its subject (“Warning,” the band’s former high water mark, encapsulates this perfectly: “and you’re looking mighty ghostly just like Bowie on Soul Train.”). Yet Pretty Years is a further development, D’Agostino broadening his emotional canvas to include such warm and fuzzy feelings as empathy, well-worn if not exactly wistful nostalgia, and the manic ups and downs of unmedicated depression.
This is most clearly seen, again, through the glorious one-two punch in the record’s middle. “Dancing Days” is a wailing, anthemic number the scope of which CEG had not previously attempted, allowing D’Agostino to run around the ladder of his vocal register in the verses before diving into a blast of earned nostalgia in the chorus. “4th of July” is a casually non-metaphorical account of that moment when D’Agostino realizes that he’s not quite the youth he thought he was anymore, and how alternatingly comforting/horrifying that realization is. “Have a Heart” is a love song, plain and simple, but manages to romanticize the most important, yet often least discussed, part of a relationship: empathy. If Pretty Years is any indication, D’Agostino is growing up, yet not necessarily growing into that wistful older twentysomething malaise; instead, Pretty Years is evidence of a comfortable middle path presenting itself, and D’Agostino taking it.
Pretty Years excels because of this middle path between insecurity and personal growth, both sonically and lyrically. The playful, War on Drugs stylization of their rock n’ roll betrays a worry that CEG might be missing the boat of potential fame again, yet all of the mucking around in experimentalism within the genre (“Mallwalking”) indicates that the band, for the first time with the same roster as their last record, are settling into the reality of their situation. If LOSE was the arm-reaching attempt to step forward into the spotlight, Pretty Years is the resignation that fame might not be on the way. Yet in the face of such literal commercial failure, Cymbals Eat Guitars are growing. “Well,” a little on the nose for a title, has a beautiful, half-time chorus following the little bit too-War on Drugs verse: “think I need help / wanna get well / the morning sky’s gone metal gray.” Here’s a band, and a songwriter, faced with a lot of the things that produce cathartic, emotionally fraught LPs, often resulting in further critical adoration. Yet CEG have never been one for the obvious choices. As their album art indicates, Pretty Years isn’t a band taking the easy way out; it’s a band learning to love itself for its idiosyncrasies. Would that we were all so lucky.
RIYL: The War On Drugs, The E Street Band covering Of Montreal, Rogue Wave, A Better Version of Parquet Courts or Real Estate
Essential Tracks: “Dancing Days,” “Mallwalking,” “Well,” “Have a Heart”
Touché Amoré – Stage Four
How much is too much? It’s a question many of our greatest artistic minds (probably) wrestle with. Tarantino is ridiculed when his films are too gory, then slandered for making Inglourious Basterds relatively light on the violence. Run the Jewels’ “Love Again” and Kanye West’s “I’m In It” are perfect examples of the dichotomy between just exactly enough sex (RTJ) and too much sex (Kanye West’s ass eating). Touché Amoré and their new album, Stage Four, tread this same fine line, except the subject is unimaginable, crushing grief.
Chronicling the passing of his mother from stage four cancer (a fact that he was told just after performing at a show), Touché Amoré songwriter Jeremy Bolm brings the listener as close as is humanly possible to his grief. “Eight Seconds” is mostly just a moment by moment account of the night that he heard of his mother’s death, his insistent yowl hurtling over a blistering post-hardcore trasher. The rest of the album is no less unrelenting. “Displacement” begins with a frank statement of facts — “You died at 69 / with a body full of cancer / I asked your God how could you / but never heard an answer” — and devolves from there into a wreck of alternating punk rages and half-time breakdowns – “she gave me her best… I couldn’t worship the god that let her fall apart.”
At a scant 36 minutes, Stage Four rarely delves into misery porn. Bolm barely repeats any lyrics throughout the record (until the titanic closer “Skyscraper”), instead relying on his inward eye to bleed onto the page whatever stream of grief-stricken consciousness it can provide; moments after calmly accounting “It’s a sunny day in Glendale,” Bolm is delivering a break: “people say with time it gets easier / but I think that they are wrong.”
How to process such grief, as a listener? Touché Amoré have made their business inwardly focused meditation, merged with progressive post-hardcore that frequently feels at once more gentle and more brutal than anything their compatriots or ancestors are/were putting out. Yet their last record, 2014’s …Is Survived By, was at least partially relatable; how does one interact with the idea of a legacy? Yet a moment this idiosyncratically, intimately told (“Water Damage” deals with the memories of his mother in her house, her cookware, and how these memories are supposed to spark revelation in his grief, but do not) as the death of Bolm’s mother is impossible to cope with without an understanding of the context.
[Dropping the detachment veil for a while… I am perhaps in one of the better positions to contextualize and understand the shaking of faith and grief that Bolm is excising here on Stage Four. My father died, without warning or predictability, when I was in my early 20s. I was a long ways away, it felt like falling for a long time. If I was a diary keeper, my diary might look a lot like Bolm’s lyrics. Yet even I have moments where I feel as though I’m being drawn too deeply into Bolm’s grief.]
So Stage Four sometimes feels voyeuristic in its intimacy – a series of stolen, private moments suddenly laid bare, publicly. One of the greatest parts of the “Emo Takeover” that has been 2016 is the prevalence of records that read so emotionally true that they sew themselves impossibly to current or past emotional truths in the listener: Modern Baseball’s Holy Ghost as post-teen depression, The Hotelier’s Goodness as those first moments of falling in true love, Pinegrove’s Cardinal as freshman year of college, trying to make friends. Touché Amoré crafted something similar with Stage Four, it just gets so close to its subject that some sense of emotional attachment with the work might be lost in the documentary ruthlessness.
Which should, in no way, take away from the power of what Bolm and his crew are accomplishing here. A review of Stage Four is difficult to parse, and I doubt that I’ve done a very good job, but as a piece of art it is one of the best pieces of the year. The Requiem for a Dream of the year, an experience instantly repeatable, yet exhausting in its truth. “Like a wave, like The Rapture / something you love is gone, something you love is gone,” from “Rapture,” sums this feeling up tidily — what we have may disappear in an instant. That we know this happens does not decreases its potency or poignancy. In many cases, it may only increase its heft. Stage Four is a monumental record for a band that seemed poised to make its monumental record. Sad, then, that such loss was to be the subject.
RIYL: La Dispute, Title Fight, Archers of Loaf
Essential Tracks: “New Halloween,” “Displacement,” “Skyscraper,” “Palm Dreams”
Other Albums Worth Checking Out
Local Natives – Sunlit Youth: For a band that has always felt about 3 years too late for the albums they release, Local Natives are remarkably consistent. Yet after the potentially star-making moves the band crafted on Hummingbird (turning a few of their manic impulses down), Local Natives take about seventeen too many left turns on the way to a destination nobody really needed them to go to. The first half of the album is, by quite a margin, the worst music of their career, messy, frothy, over-glittered and purposeless. The streak from “Coins” to “Psycho Lovers” redeems the record a bit, building on top of the band’s ability to get lovely guitar tone from almost nothing and percussive cohesion from a bevy of drums. Yet it’s ultimately not enough. Once again, Local Natives can’t get close enough to accomplishing what they’re going for, and end up feeling aged compared to the progressiveness of the indie rock pervading the scene this year.
Yohuna – Patientness: A lovely shoegaze-pop trinket for those wanting their fuzz with little slumbercore lullabies. While it can tend toward a bit more zeitgeist-y pop melodies, Johanna Swanson crafts a magical, mysterious underwater dream of a record. And if you miss “The Moon Hangs in the Sky Like Nothing Hangs in the Sky,” well, that’s just your own fault.
Against Me! – Shape Shift With Me: Unlike Taking Back Sunday, who put out a sexist, flaccid version of this record on the same day, Laura Jane Grace returns with a fitting follow-up to 2014s enraged, powerful Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Focusing on inward romantic feelings this time, Grace keeps her pen filled with bilious ink, and some of the tracks are particularly incisive (“Delicate, Pretty & Other Things I’ll Never Be” feels particularly amazing). There’s nothing to compare to TDB’s incediary, unbelievable title track, yet “333,” “Crash,” and “Rebecca” to a damned good job.
Chris Farren – Can’t Die: For those Reggie + The Full Effect or Motion City Soundtrack die hards (hey, what’s up guys!), Chris Farren is here to bring you a vivacious, pop-punk gone to a “Learn Tween Melodies” concert. Farren’s delicate voice, paired with the smooth as silk power pop around him generates a relentlessly pleasant listen. I challenge you to not smile after listening to this record. Also, “Can’t Die,” is perfect.