“Worms”- Youth Lagoon

Considering 2013 was the year the cold vastness of space grew larger with the debut of Gravity, it seems oddly appropriate music in the early part of 2014 would begin to reflect that vastness. “Space-rock” is a sub-genre that’s been floating around for decades, but has largely been ignored by the mainstream since Hawkwind’s brief flirtation with Billboard in the early-70s and Pink Floyd’s shift to more Earthly-concerns with Dark Side of the Moon. Lefse Records is attempting to change that with their ambitious Space Project, which uses actual “sounds” from space. Though it’s not directly possible to hear sound in space, it is possible to take fluctuations in electromagnetic radiation and particles and “convert” those occurrences into sound.

That’s exactly what the label has done for the upcoming release by utilizing recordings of the Voyager spacecrafts. And our first taste of this conversion process comes courtesy of Boise’s own Youth Lagoon. “Worms” culls noises from the rings of Uranus to craft a swirling number. Plucked strings dance into the great beyond while warped synthesizers evince the slow-burn of a rocket. You can hear the nervousness in Trevor Powers as he heads into an expanse of nothingness, croaking “you’re much more competent, but they can’t see you when you’re afraid.” And hidden amongst all of these sounds are tiny bleeps taken from the seventh planet in this Solar System. Small in “size”, but colossal in importance they echo Powers’ own sentiment, “the most significant statement is one that isn’t spoken.”

The Space Project doesn’t have a set in stone release date yet, but it is coming soon from Lefse.

“Talking Backwards”- Real Estate

There’s a moment in the video for Real Estate’s new single “Talking Backwards” that’s too perfectly choreographed in such an off-the-cuff clip. For a scant two seconds, the camera pans heavenward to capture a vibrant blue sky with clouds dotting it. It’s a serene happening, seen through a grimy van windshield.

That metaphor, no matter how accidental can be appended to the band itself. On previous outings, tranquility hid underneath soft blankets of fuzz. With “Talking Backwards”, the first song off of the forthcoming Atlas, the sheets have been stripped off as the band faces sunlight pouring in from the window. A “rude” descriptor like “jangly” no longer carries water. Martin Courtney and Matt Mondanile’s guitars quietly chime as the drums pitter-patter and the bass hums. With this newfound clarity, Courtney’s syrup-drenched lines stop sounding as sweet. The title reflects his inability to the say the right thing at the right time to a girlfriend who is “too many miles away.” An idyllic walk home is ruined by Courtney’s stammering. There’s one line he can manage to get out right, “the only thing that really matters is the one thing I can’t seem to do.”

Atlas, the band’s third LP, is arriving stateside March 4 via Domino Records.

“Rimbaud Eyes”- Dum Dum Girls

“Lost Boys and Girls Club”, the first cut from the forthcoming Dum Dum Girls LP Too True was a cauldron churning effort. Drums lumbered and synthesizers muted the band’s color palette to a hazy grey, making Dee Dee Penny’s lingering voice darker in the process. The only common identifier it had with past works was its runtime, still clocking in at less than 4 minutes.

“Rimbaud Eyes”, the newest release from their 3rd full-length similarly tips its cap to the bands’ breakneck pace, while simultaneously moving into uncharted territory. The band previously paid tribute to French-poet Arthur Rimbaud with the galloping “Season in Hell”, but that jangling slice of garage pop fit in comfortably with the work of peers like Best Coast. “Rimbaud Eyes” on the other hand dives headlong into an 80s abyss, imagining a white wedding of the Bangles and Disintegration-era Cure. Here the drums are in an unshakable lockstep and the bass is back to its chugging pace. Jules’ guitar work contorts like the Stone Roses’ John Squire caught in a never-ending game of Twister. And then there’s Dee Dee, voice trapped in a far-off cavern; crying “every morning’s atrocious” and hiding from the dawning Sun. When surrounded by such self-assured performances, her crippled vocal turn registers as “weak”. But as the titular poet of the tune once asked, “what soul is without its flaws?”

Too True drops January 28 through Sub-Pop and you can listen to “Rimbaud Eyes” here.

“American Horror”- Speedy Ortiz

Massachusetts band Speedy Ortiz’s second album Major Arcana, is incredibly anachronistic. Debuted in July of 2013, the record would’ve fared equally well if released in the mid-90s when Built to Spill’s sprawling guitar odes first came within earshot. Even lead-singer Sadie Dupuis’ voice drifts into Doug Martsch territory. “Slacker” is an easy word to toss-off when you hear her warbling though the understated melodicism signifies a tireless worker. And the rupturing guitar solos the band provides couldn’t possibly come from anyone sunk into a couch.

The mighty guitar wallop of new-cut “American Horror” obliterates any couch. Hearing those first feedback laden seconds, another Amherst, Mass band comes to mind. Dinosaur Jr. continues to be the gold-standard of indie-rock guitar heroics, and Speedy Ortiz seems to be cut from the same cloth. Add a few RPMs to the track and you’ve entered into “Kracked”. Dupuis’ proclamation “no it’s not what you think,” drips with just enough snotty adolescence to keep it away from wounded-animal territory. It does thrash like a sickly beast on its last leg however. Guitar feedback splays to every conceivable angle and drums perpetually throb. “You’d be out on a stretcher after your home-stretch,” goes a key line before the song hurtles into the first chorus. The aesthetic suggests “90s”, but the noise ensures the group didn’t hear anything from the entire decade.

“American Horror”, is from the forthcoming EP Real Hair, out February 11 through Carpark Records, and can be heard here.


“Digital Witness”- St. Vincent

They are plenty of adjectives you can bandy about when discussing Annie Clark’s music as St. Vincent. Angular, pecuilar, and crestfallen all come to mind. One that would most certainly not register, and leave more than a few people scratching their heads is “funky”. Yet that’s precisely what new cut “Digital Witness” can be described as. Clark’s second release from the forthcoming St. Vincent, “Digital Witness” marks a major left turn from “Birth in Reverse”. Where the latter track still contained the motorik drum beats and guitar-nerd pyrotechnics, “Digital Witness” imagines what would happen if Television reunited and had their comeback album produced by Timbaland. Digitally treated horns lock into an unshakable groove and Clark plays the role of dance-leader perfectly; repeatedly trilling “give me all of your mind, I want all of your mind.” Guitars still ripple in the song, though they’re largely maligned to a background role. “People turn their TV’s on and throw them out the window,” a key passage cryptically reads. The old model may work just fine, but why not try something new?

St. Vincent is out February 25 through Republic/Loma Vista. Check out the tracklist below and listen to the song here.

St. Vincent:

1. “Rattlesnake”
2. “Birth In Reverse”
3. “Prince Johnny”
4. “Huey Newton”
5. “Digital Witness”
6. “I Prefer Your Love”
7. “Regret”
8. “Bring Me Your Loves”
9. “Psychopath”
10. “Every Tear Disappears”
11. “Severed Crossed Fingers”

“Live at the Cellar Door”- Neil Young

I’ve mentioned my cluttered car before. How warn-out Christmas service bulletins are strewn about, along with a plastic jade Budai and an untold number of CDs. “Too many to count” is an underestimate, and if I were to take count, I’d likely stop halfway through to listen to an album. Supposing I ever finishing the Herculean task of taking stock of them all, I’d notice two live albums in all that musical refuse, Neil Young’s 1979 release Rust Never Sleeps and his 2007 Archives album Live at Massey Hall 1971.

I don’t devalue live albums by any means; it’s just that any live record when pitted against a Neil Young solo endeavor suddenly is dispensable. Much of Young’s music, even that featuring primal guitar blasts has a glass-like fragility to it. When presented live, sans Crazy Horse, that fragility has nowhere to hide. Alone, Young’s songs begin to take on the air of a séance; conjuring the ghosts of a not-so distant past.

Live at the Cellar Door, Young’s latest entry into the suddenly cluttered NYA Performance Series (this is number 2.5), continues the haunting of Live at Massey Hall 1971. Recorded just a few short months before that album, during a six show residency at Washington DC’s Cellar Door, the record bears a lot of overlap with its companion piece. Of the 13 stark songs, 7 of them also make an appearance on Massey Hall. Still, this latest effort charts a wildly different course from its predecessor. For starters, Massey Hall found Young playing to a receptive Canadian crowd that hooted at his every move. Not so for Cellar Door, which finds the D.C. crowd sitting in marked silence, only breaking the tension for the occasional applause or chuckle.

However, it’s more than just crowd demeanor that separates the two albums. After the Gold Rush-classic “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” makes just its second appearance in the Young live-discography (the first being in the unwieldy Archives boxset). A tale of being crushed by a heavy heart, the song’s ragged guitar loop punctures the crowd as much as Young’s lyrics. “When you were young and on your own, how did it feel to be alone?” he delicately warbles. Young’s asking because he’s been there, he’s seen the stark chasms love can create. An unadorned stage isn’t all that’s making him feel isolated.

“See the Sky About to Rain” a staple of Young’s live catalog during this time, makes one of its earliest showings, and the heavenly piano-number becomes more celestial in this intimate setting. An incredible four years away from being released on On the Beach, the tune is in full-flight. Similarly, “Old Man” arrives fully-formed for its public debut. Stripped of all the backing vocals and pedal steel that marked the Harvest-version, the offering here is Young at his most world-weary. The Canadian singer-songwriter has always betrayed his age and at 24, you can already hear father time rapping on his door.

Excluding the “Old Man” debut, one of the most compelling tracks is Young’s piano-led version of “Cinnamon Girl.” Hearing the Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere-cut without its dinosaur-guitar riff is jarring, though Young’s “leaden” piano-work provides a welcome substitute. At one point he confesses to having played piano seriously for “a year at this point,” but his rookie performance never distracts. Sitting behind his nine-foot Steinway Grand Piano, Young delivers a masterful take of the plaintive After the Gold Rush-track “Birds.” “It’s over, it’s over,” he relays in the closing lines, slyly reminding the crowd the book on the 60s was closing shut.

Viewed in another light, Live at the Cellar Door and Live at Massey Hall 1971 operate as a bifurcation of Young’s brief career. In the rearview lay his work with Buffalo Springfield and the consecutive classics mentioned above. Up ahead, was the career-defining Harvest, though that moment-in-the-sun would come with a price. Soon Neil Young would throw his back out while tending to his ranch and pick up a painkiller habit. Close-friend and Crazy Horse-guitarist Danny Whitten was slipping further into a heroin addiction that would claim his life by 1972, and lead Young into the ditch himself. Around this time, Young entered into a topsy-turvy relationship with actress Carrie Snodgrass, a period documented in the bitterly misogynistic “A Man Needs a Maid.” That pallor threatens to suffocate Live at the Cellar Door, from the “single-minded” shuffle of “Bad Fog of Loneliness” to the fierce acoustic strumming of the harrowing “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.” In some sense, the emotional heft of shoegazing was born in this moment.

There are fleeting bits of levity to break up the dour material, but even a joke opening to finale “Flying on the Ground is Wrong”, where Young declares “this song is about dope” comes coated in layers of irony. When Young starts scraping the piano strings, you can hear any wide-eyed optimism in the crowd dissipate. I’m currently working on a piece that discusses how Young’s own work heralded the end of 60s generation, and nowhere is that better felt on this release than the finale. The simple “I wish I could have, met you in a place, where we both belong,” was never granted to the Love Generation. And the repetitious “I’m sorry to let you down,” backed by a minor-key glisten, feels less narrative and more descriptive of where Young was in his life. Trapped between decades, he was struggling to pick up the pieces. He’d woken up from the dream and no one was there to comfort him.

“Mine” ft. Drake- Beyoncé

I was up last Thursday at midnight when Beyoncé unexpectedly dropped her fifth-album, the self-titled Beyoncé. Not surprisingly people were freaking out instantly, saying Queen Bey had obliterated the competition and calling the record a game-changer. While I’d argue it’s still premature to make such sweeping declarations about a week-old album, early returns and Billboard numbers indicate the R&B blitzkrieg worked. But the more interesting thing to me during those early hours of the album’s release wasn’t what everyone was saying, but what wasn’t being said. I follow three-hundred plus artists on Twitter and once the Beyoncé news broke, not a single one of them had a thing to say. It could’ve been the late-night hours that kept them silent; I’d like to picture the music industry collectively shuddering, not knowing how to even proceed.

Had they heard the album, they certainly would’ve been shook. A mélange of “post-dubstep tinted future R&B“, Beyoncé’s stunning cohesiveness borders on inscrutable. From the soaring “XO” to the matrimonial giddiness of “Drunk in Love”, everything logically fits together and serves an artistic purpose, a major achievement considering how many people worked on this LP. One of these collaborative efforts that immediately caught my eye, was “Mine”, featuring Drake and produced by the rapper’s in-house producer Noah “40” Shebib. “Mine” is what you might expect from a “40” effort, fumes of synthesizer and percussive clinks slowly encroaching on the track, occasionally picking up into full bass-drops and drum machine hits. To fit in with the minor-key fare, Beyoncé and Drake stick to the shadows. “F*** what you heard your mine, your mine,” Beyoncé proclaims. In the past, she would’ve wailed the line into oblivion, here she holds back, barely rising above a whisper. Drake’s in self-conscious confidence mode, s***-talking one moment and sincerely apologizing the next. His lothario side is largely tempered to fit the couple on the verge of commitment vibes. Call it next level if you’d like, tracks like “Mine” make it clear that on Beyoncé everyone’s working on the same level, and she’s leading the way.

Listen to the track here.

“Satellites”- EMA

South Dakota singer-songwriter EMA’s debut 2011 record Past Life Martyred Saints was compared to a car-crash. While the immediate notion is the album is something “you can’t look away from”, the crash itself is what the record should be compared to. Throughout the course of the raw, emotional LP Erika M. Anderson detailed: romantic obsession, physical abuse, self-mutilation, and more with an uncomfortable openness. When appended to heaving industrial melodies Anderson refers to as “folk-noise”, Past Life Martyred Saints became more than a case of chronic over-sharing, it was a living ghost story.

After taking the record out on tour, Anderson went dormant, but now her pained death-croon is back for round 2. The first noise we hear on new track “Satellites” is the sound of a Poltergeist-like static, announcing the return of the spectral Anderson. Noise is the ultimate way to obfuscate for EMA, a way to distract from the dispiriting stories she shares. Rumbling synthesizers and chattering claps are tasked with the job, though they fail when Anderson’s panged half-whisper comes into earshot. By the time the chorus comes around that whisper becomes frenzied as Anderson wails “I can’t relate” under a coat of churning electronics. According to new label Matador, “Satellites” introduces “us to some of the new album’s metaphysical themes, of struggling to understand where we fit in the digital age and where we are all headed.” More than noise, what we’re hearing is struggle.

EMA’s new album The Future Void is coming out this spring through Matador and you can hear “Satellites” here.