Albums of the Month

Albums of the Month, 6-7/16: Summer Feelings

Summer music tends to be frivolous, filled with nonsensical choruses and ill-advised chart-adjacent singles. Yet for all the heat and “we’ll live forever” teenage screams, there are just as many heartfelt explosions of feeling. The Albums of the Month for both June and July (sorry guys!) prove this in spades.

Albums of the Month
Mitski – Puberty 2

Mitski – Puberty 2

Teenagerdom is a demographic to be captured, which means that, in some weird way, puberty is desirable. This makes intuitive sense in musical terms, where frequently the most dramatic, wave-of-catharsis pop songs are the ones that take over the airwaves. Indie rock also dodges toward the pubescent; Arcade Fire’s entire career is predicated on the return to a life more filled with world-conquering freedom and feeling, a necessary part of that teenage feeling of simultaneous insecurity and invincibility.

Mitski Miyawaki trades in these feelings of conjoined sullenness and power, and her most recent record, Puberty 2, overtly pushes towards them in all their complexity and misunderstanding. In a way, the title is a humorous nod to sequel-mania, and Puberty 2 does feel like a “bigger harder faster” follow up to her breakout Bury Me At Makeout Creek. But the title of the record is a clever nod at its recording process, a way of mining into Mitski’s teenage years, recognizing that she’s not a teenager anymore but willing to re-inhabit those years for the purposes of artistic revelation.

Those revelations flash like fireworks in the listener’s ear and then disappear, Puberty 2 never feeling fully contended with sticking in the same place for more than a moment. Puberty 2 at times looks like that girl you knew in high school who probably listened to much better music than you and had probably already had sex. “Happy” is a skittering, warbled number that presents quite a romantic vision of a woman pining for a departing lover (or feeling), until you realize that within the first verse Mitski has slipped in a dark little secret: “so he laid me down and I felt happy come inside of me.” It’s these grand romantic gestures flecked with dark purple bruises of pubescent life that give  Puberty 2 it’s color and shape; “Happy” is a relatively normal indie rock number, yet a skronking saxophone in the bridges reminds us all not to stay too comfortable — what romanticism Mitski sometimes presents is fleeting. It’s only in registering the context of her album’s content that “Happy” takes on its metaphorical meaning, a clever song-length thesis of Mitski’s operating life philosophy: “happiness fucks you.”

The rest of the album proceeds on its dark pop way, Mitski building upon the sonic framework of that bygone firework of personal teenage politics — EMA. “Dan the Dancer” is about the frailty of opening oneself up to another to try and achieve something a little bit more rewarding than just depression and loneliness. Yet opening up frequently leads to depression and loneliness, the feelings of inadequacy and imbalance taking over the pubescent brain. Mitski cunningly envelopes herself in these innocent, dark feelings, wrapping herself in similarly innocent, dark sonics. “Fireworks,” the song that kicks off the record’s phenomenal middle third, is a pretty little acoustic guitar strum with menacing, horror movie synths washing over the framework as if conflicting emotions are trying to command Mitski’s powerful croon. Hint, she doesn’t let the innocence keep her safe. “Fireworks” is a stirring pep talk about overcoming depression that doesn’t exactly end where you want, but perhaps it’s where the character needs the song to end. The cooing “I Bet On Losing Dogs” works in the same way in a bit more drug addled haziness — Mitski acknowledging the decisions she makes are the objectively wrong ones… yet she cannot stop making the same choices. The caterwauling “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” screams its desires to be original and to be exactly who you want to be, even if that means crucifying yourself as a martyr for your feelings.

But the record’s centerpiece is its first single, “Your Best American Girl.” It’s not a complicated song to figure out; Mitski is a dark, weak little figure in the face of a bright, huge lover, and she understands what she wants, even if it will hurt her. Because, of course, there’s always a rub — in this case, Mitski’s relationship with her parents and the way she was raised. It’s a hard implication towards Mitski’s military base-hopping Japanese upbringing, something that might frighten away potential suitors’ WASPy mothers. Here is a beautiful thing, the potential for Mitski to build from her base of depression and find someone to orbit that might shine some of his light on her; there is her upbringing, turning her away from this. Yet, there’s that “finally” at the end of the song. Perhaps, in reckoning with the differences in her upbringing, Mitski at the same time gains perspective on why her life is the way it is, and a sort of appreciation for the struggle she faces — an appreciation for not turning into “an American Girl,” not coincidentally the name of a children’s doll. The ultimate end of puberty is reconciliation with the way your parents brought you through such a fraught time in life. Halfway through her best record to date, Mitski arrives at a moment of catharsis capable of bringing her out of her second teenage doldrums. She might descend again, and further (“Crack Baby,” hello!), yet there’s a way out.

RIYL: EMA, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (early stuff), Girlpool
Essential Tracks: “Your Best American Girl,” “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” “Fireworks”

Albums of the Month

Martha – Blisters in the Pit of My Heart

One of the qualities that can make or break punk bands is tightness. Sure, sloppy punk can have its place (early Blink-182 was founded on almost this exact premise), but a rhythmically taut bass and drum combo can free up a group to sonically wander around in the fringes of punk, finding nooks and crannies that suit their style all the better. Martha, the four piece vegan anarchists from Durham, North England, predicate their existence on this framework. Utilizing the interplay between their drummer, Nathan Stephens-Griffin, and their bass player/sometimes lead singer Naomi Griffin, Martha build intriguing guitar textures that nod at the Replacements, Green Day and Swearin’. It’s no wonder Gareth of Welsh pop-punk Mount Rushmore inductees Los Campesinos! gave the group a worthy tweeted cosign on the eve of their debut album release, Courting Strong. Yet Blisters in the Pit of My Heart doubles the explosive springboard punk in all the right places, propelling the band further than perhaps even their crustiest supporters might’ve hoped, cementing the band as one of the most exciting in punk across the world, let alone England.

For a band with a decidedly punk agenda (gender neutral bathrooms get dropped on album standout “Do Whatever”), Blisters is markedly subtle in the ways it worms its hyper-liberal progressivisms into your ears. “Precarious (the Supermarket Song)” is a clever little suburban love song, yet there are plenty of quips about the inherent evils of retail as a concept hidden in the copious hooks. Even the repeated last line, “uh oh, when you gonna get off work,” carries a neat double meaning; when are you done with your shift, or when the hell are you going to stop doing the Man’s jobs? “Goldman’s Detective Agency” works similarly; you can read it as a clever little story about a “gumshoe,” or you could read up on the history of Emma Goldman and come away with a less than positive view of British police. Overarching these lyrical themes is Martha’s ability to combine the sociopolitical with the snarky jumps of pop-punk; it’s a trait that precious few bands since Paul Westerberg and The Replacements have been able to reconcile. Westerberg specifically gets a shoutout on the album’s simple finale as a sort of mentor of the forgotten folk, patron saint of the disregarded and degraded.

The romanticism and political angst would hardly have the effect it does without the stellar sonics Martha craft around them. The song from whose lyrics Martha draw their album’s title, “Ice Cream and Sunscreen” starts off as plaintively as possible, one un-affected guitar strumming around a missive about missed summer opportunities, yet morphs into one of the faster ragers of the album, flipping on a dime and not losing the plot of the song’s thesis. “Do Nothing,” the album’s titanic pre-finale, works similarly; slightly off-kilter bass lines over wailing lines about giving up on the things that have so disappointed the song’s subject. Yet about halfway through mid-tempo blast of wall shattering chords, Martha shift into high gear, pushing the pace from steady to frantic, propelling their fans’ hands from above their heads to phrenetic pushing around in the pit around a final line as fitting a summary as possible: “everything is infinite, nothing is eternal.” Many bands attempt the pop-punk jiujitsu Martha so effortlessly pull off on Blisters… none succeed so well. Perhaps this is why Blisters can feel so inevitable at times, why its eminent greatness could be mistaken for just another above average pop-punk record. Martha are doing what many other bands are doing; they’re just doing it infinitely better than all of them.

RIYL: The Replacements, Swearin’, All Dogs, Joanna Gruesome
Essential Tracks: “Do Whatever,” “”Christine,” “11:45, Legless in Brandon”

Albums of the Month

Camp Cope – Camp Cope

In contrast to Martha, however, sometimes shambles can be thematically appropriate as well. Camp Cope, a recent export from Melbourne, Australia’s bustling music scene, and their self-titled debut make the most of wandering around in an inherently minimalist space and discovering revelatory results in the process. While Camp Cope might not feel as musically powerful as Martha’s comparatively big budget sophomore breakout, its ramshackle busker-esque songwriting and patina deal a raw hand to a listener that may not be fully prepared to deal with such emotions at such close proximity.

Georgia Maq, the lead of the band and a mainstay in the Melbourne singer-songwriter scene, takes her most devastating diary entries and pens them to sonics that are frequently only there to help highlight her delivery. The album is into its base framework within 15 seconds — unaffected bass guitar, slightly fuzzed-out lead and a pitter-patter of cymbal rush drums. This formula barely deviates throughout the album’s over half-hour running time, yet never manages to feel tired or bereft of any more good ideas. Part of this is the focus on Maq’s delivery and lyricism, part is that the band understand the limits of their budget and studio and, instead of adding extraneous elements, stick with the bone-raw tone to match the similarly raw lyrical tone.

Focusing on the lyrics of Camp Cope feels intrusive, mostly by nature. Maq draws her audience in more closely than even noted diary entry artist Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee, among others) even dared. Within the first song, “Done,” Maq has expressed deep shame about ignoring and walking past a homeless man, regret for not properly illustrating her admiration for her sister, and her unfortunate embarrassment at telling someone that they love them, only to have it be taken as something other than an expression of love. “Flesh and Electricity” is no easier, even if the sonics are calmer; here’s a woman presenting herself as intimately broken, unable to process the physical touch or presence of a person as anything more than “anatomy / just bones and insecurity.” Her periodically slumber-like delivery works for her in spades in these moments, presenting a resigned figure to the laments of her fate. “West Side Story” works similarly, a torch song for a musical partner long gone morphing into a messy philosophical treatise on the gentrification of communities. “I wanna make fun of cops with you,” said in the most dour voice possible.

Yet amidst the malaise and darkness, little hints of humor and humanity peek their way through. The long distance relationship catalog “Lost (Season One)” fuses a lyrical device about displacement with a clever, self-deprecating joke about the best season of a TV show that hasn’t particularly aged well. Sure, the song references the slow orbit of misplaced people across the surface of the planet as a destiny of destruction, but at least there’s a joke in there too. “Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams” turns on a similar black comic joke, something befitting Bojack Horseman; a singer railing against the prevalent nature of garden variety streetside sexual harassment, the similarly prevalent presence of the “woke bro” and his fantastic obsession with 9/11 conspiracy theories. It’s almost enough to make someone believe.

Maq’s enduring power, then, is her ability to draw the listener into her real world. The album’s devastating closer “Song for Charlie,” a back-of-the-napkin letter to Maq’s brother in the days following their father’s death, is the closest and most powerful example. The lyrics read like a therapy session, Maq recounting the play-by-play of tragedy, “feeling everything” and transposing those feelings with as specific a voice as possible. Camp Cope may be relatively new as a band concept, but Maq’s clearheaded voice and magnificent alto tone are well-honed over years. When she finishes the record with “when you’re not ok / you can always call / it was no one’s fault,” it’s hard not to feel drawn into Maq’s family, feel like an voyeur in the face of such tragedy. Camp Cope’s first record is a startling account of emotional closeness, one that its ramshackle production strengthens to create one of the most affecting releases of the year.

RIYL: Waxahatchee, P.S. Eliot, The Hotelier
Essential Tracks: “Lost (Season One),” “West Side Story,” “Song for Charlie,” “Trepidation”

Other Albums to Check Out

Albums of the MonthDescendents – Hypercaffium SpazzinateMilo returns! The seminal punk band return with their best record in two decades (not saying too much, they put out a record about once a decade). Combining the flowery high production values of their later work with the caustic, temporary elation of their earlier blasts, Descendents prove the old guys can still do it just as good (if not sometimes better) than the people they have influenced. Don’t miss “Without Love.”

Albums of the MonthPkew Pkew PkewPkew Pkew PkewImagine, if you will, Andrew W.K. shows up at the house at your college where all the skate rats live. Then imagine Andrew W.K. got those skate rats to record a record. That’s basically what we’re talking about here. And it rules. If it weren’t for the band right below this one, Pkew Pkew Pkew would have the best name in rock right now. Don’t miss “The Prime Minister of Defense.”

Albums of the MonthDiarrhea Planet Turn to Gold: The boys with the best band name in the business stumble after a collection of great EPs and their fantastic sophomore effort, I am Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams. A collection of perhaps one too many lead singers and an unwelcome slowing down of their pace rob the planet of some of their four guitar punk verve. Still, second half of the record kind of rules.

Albums of the MonthWilliam Tyler – Modern Country: Another stellar instrumental entry from the virtuoso guitarist, this one focusing itself less on the psychedelic build up of his previous records and more upon the foundations of country music. Plucky back porch guitar, skittering drums and some War on Drugs-style piano flourishes flesh out an already stellar sound. Great chill record.

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