“Government Plates”- Death Grips

Death Grips don’t make anything easy. From missing-in-action concert “performances” to label-baiting free album releases, the band foments controversy with its every hyper-kinetic, brutish utterance. In a reductive comparison, they’re the indie analog to an artist like Kanye West. But all that doesn’t matter unless there’s something to lend it credence. Absent of any music, MC Ride/Zach Hill/and Andy Morin are petulant, barking dogs without any bite. Government Plates, their latest out-of-nowhere release then is the latest attempt to provide fangs.

A sound of breaking glass jump-starts the Dylan-indebted opener “You might think he loves you for your money…”. It’s as much a sly wink to their expectation shattering tendencies as it is a way to announce their presence. Ever agitated, mere seconds tick off before MC Ride is screaming from the abyss. The music doesn’t constrict, it collapses. Zach Hill’s drum kit sounds predestined to shatter into micro-fragments and the rumbling bass is as stable as a glass of water during an earthquake. In terms of welcoming parties, the Leatherface clan would be more inviting.

Though the feral animal presentation is frightening, Death Grips’ moments of measure are similarly bone-chilling. In August, I wrote synth-manipulator “Birds” captured the group preparing for war. Here MC Ride mumbles with a dead-eye stare “I got today shoveling graves, I got tomorrow turning in your grave” while arming to the gills. He’s seemingly indifferent to his doom, even as looping guitars bleed out in front of him. Following an onslaught, the final few seconds of closer “Whatever I want (f*** who’s watching)” unravel in relative silence. “Anne Bonny” expands the Godspeed You! Black Emperor idea of being “trapped in the belly of the machine” while it bleeds to death. Bolts jostle on the steely frame of synthesizers, Ride practically shouting them off, but they never come completely unhinged. It’s the auditory equivalent of watching someone perpetually teeter on the edge of a cliff.

But this is still Death Grips we’re talking about and if anything of theirs sells, it certainly isn’t reserve. Clattering drums in “Feels like a wheel” recall Radiohead’s “Idioteque” set to warp-speed. The intermittent vocal chatter and keyboard trills possess the hypnotic quality of an out-of-control-merry-go-round hurling rusty nails from its unstable center. The aforementioned “Whatever I want (F*** who’s watching)” sheds several skins: cascading electronic waterfalls,  heart pounding drum hits, repeating caveman hollers, and punishing recoils before coalescing into a nauseating musical bouillabaisse. “Big House”s barely held together opening synth and galloping drum beat imagine a level of Super Mario Bros. played by a binging meth-addict. Inevitably the “game over” sound parachutes in, propelled by Ride’s incendiary ramblings.

Lyrically Ride’s focuses remain lingering paranoia (made clear by the “skin creeping” of “Big House”) and the ever-watchful camera lens of Uncle Sam. Past an us vs. them mentality, Ride’s hoarse diatribes sprout in the rocky grounds of “me against the world”. If career moves are any indication, the band thrives in the land of the pariah. Much of the careening album pays little mind to “we” (royal or otherwise) instead fixating on the exclusive “I”. “Two Heavens” only casualty is Ride, informing us he’s on his “way out”. The skittish head-nodder “This is Violence Now (Dont get me wrong)” teases the titular action without anything resembling a payoff; leaving us alone in Ride’s trembling hands. A pinnacle of paranoia, the title track churns: chopped up vocals, distant bomb blasts, and interstellar communique together to craft a 21st Century manifesto railing against unchecked corporate greed. Sifting through the lyrical rubble, the band’s punk aesthetic can be found.

Speaking to Pitchfork in late-2012 about the band’s chaotic dissolution from Epic, drummer Zach Hill somewhat mystically said “the place where we’re coming from sometimes transcends logic.” For all the schizoid musings the group concocts, the line was right on the money. Approaching this album with any preconceived notions is a fool’s errand. To even expect a reformulating of No Love Deep Web misses the mark entirely. Near the end of my Tuesday article concerning Enter the Wu-Tang‘s 20th anniversary, I wrote “Wu-Tang didn’t kowtow to the prevailing wisdom of the era (innovators rarely do). We met them on their own terms” and that’s equally true of Death Grips. Every schizophrenic yawp and anvil blast either sends you running for the hills or draws you in further. As bristly and repudiating of the status quo as Government Plates is, it’s also reaffirming.

(You can get the album for free here or alternately at Death Grips Soundcloud account)

“Babble on.”- Willis Earl Beal

Willis Earl Beal’s debut 2012 release Acousmatic Sorcery intertwined lo-fi folk and howling gut-bucket blues and while follow-up Nobody knows. increased the fidelity, Beal’s threadbare emotions remained. He wept in “Everything unwinds.”, yearned to see the other side of pearly gates during “Too Dry to Cry”, and remained obstinate for the blind dedication of “Coming Through”. Aside from the greater emphasis on production, the only constant was Beal’s enduring voice’ winding through deltas and climbing up mountaintops.

“Babble on.”, one of two new songs Beal suddenly released yesterday travels further back in time than any previous release; its delicate guitar figure recalling a wandering English ballad. The dusty hat of a troubadour is one Beal wears well, calmly urging the cool waters to “babble on” and seeking refuge in places where “no one waits” and there “are no gates”. In this earnestness, Beal channels the often challenged verse of Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”, imaging a world where the only barriers are mental and not man-made. Even in a subdued state, Beal’s voice is sounding. Like the river Beal traces nothing can stop him, not a single one of his guises will ever turn back.

The other track Beal debuted yesterday “Coriander Tree Life” is a slice of floating synth-work and features multitracked vocals. You can find it here.

Iron & Wine at the Midland

Photo Susan Pfannmuller/Kansas City Star

I have a tendency to over-romanticize Iron & Wine. On several mind-numbing, heartbreaking, stomach-churning occasions I’ve found myself looping “Trapeze Swinger” and “Resurrection Fern” to infinity; searching for a spiritual companion or just looking to get lost. Impartiality can quickly cede to reverence as words like “whispery mystic” tumble throughout my head. Even having seen Sam Beam & company once before at my alma mater, I could hardly steal myself from flitting into fervent joy as the twelve piece band began kicking up dust for Ghost on Ghost track “Desert Babbler”.

The band was simultaneously the greatest asset and impediment to Beam’s collection of ornate material. The horn section spun “Carousel” into elegiac territory; haunting Beam’s journey home. Elsewhere, on-point drum fills and bucolic strings lent Kiss Each Other Clean cut “Tree by the River” a bounce the lackadaisical original only daydreamed of. “Low Light Buddy of Mine”s piano and rocksteady drum suspended the song in a zombified lurch. Here Beam’s soft recollections of “new fruit humming in the old fruit tree” hemmed closer to “Strange Fruit” than any Sunday afternoon love song. “Late into the Night” imagined a Motown where white boy jazz bands are common place and Marvin Gaye carried dog-eared poet readers. And “Caught in the Briars” countryside gait steadily trod into Ornette Coleman caterwauling, every implement of the band attempting to outdo one another.

While the newer material, birthed in a raucous large-scale setting, fared uniformly well the “old s**t” as Beam called it was more of a gamble. Beam’s inclusion of horns can border on obtrusive, but the knowing reservation on the heavenly “Passing Afternoon” was a welcome entrant. Tenderly clutching the string section’s hand, “Such Great Heights” traipsed through a field of clover, as the “freckles in our eyes” imagery became Irish balladry. Funereal violins in Shepherd’s Dog closer “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” enjoin Beam to enter into the “soft dark night”.

“Belated Promise Ring” remains a closely kept favorite of mine, a stock example of “fervent” love if there ever was one in the discography. My reaction then to the funky sauntering was equal parts engaged and horrified. The original moved at a steady clip, Beam knowing when to pace himself and ring out every last drop of ethos. In this new incarnation, the lyrics were obscured by the small army of musicians. “Jezebel” ran into a similar wall. The ba-ba-ba vocals while well placed, appended sweet to a bitter Biblical tale. At times the 12-piece proved strength isn’t always in numbers.

“Monkeys Uptown” moved in the other direction reverting to a primal stage. In the moment, Beam was “furiously” fingerpicking guitar, only joined by death waltzing violin. As the song of “never settling down” unspooled, I began to envision Beam’s recent efforts stripped down to their bare essentials. And “barren” is the perfect descriptor of the aforementioned “Resurrection Fern”. The song’s tender embrace “bound in bailing wire” rang out through the theatre; showstopping in its subtlety. At a critical moment, Beam stopped to quip “watch this”, knowing full well the audience was firmly within his cross-hairs.

With every ebb and flow, I remained in focus and expected anything from a surprisingly generous Beam. Nowhere was that generosity on better display than his entrance into “Upward Over the Mountain” after an audience suggestion. The now decade-old song remains a fan favorite, all that was required was a teased opening and the audience was jubilant. I don’t know if my heart’s ever pounded as loudly at a concert as the moment the chords first spilled forth. And as the “birds” of the song took flight, I found myself caught up again. Lost in a land of the strange and familiar.

“Lean”- The National

It’s almost impossible to dissect this track without discussing its near exclusion from the Catching Fire soundtrack. Originally entitled “Dying is Easy”, the label balked at the National’s morose title, conveniently forgetting their source material, as frontman Matt Berninger pointed out “it’s about killing kids; I don’t know how an album can be darker than that?” However, the frightening Darwinism on display in the series is easily outshone (or more appropriately overshadowed) by much of the band’s maudlin output. One of the “bounciest” numbers on this year’s Trouble Will Find Me found Berninger attempting to dull his pain any way he could and evincing suicide. Child-killing is cringe-worthy, but such bleak existentialism is soul crushing.

Renamed “Lean”, the Brooklyn by-way-of Cincinnati band’s contribution remains sullen. A skeletal guitar figure trudges in from the cold, as Berninger ruminates about the oncoming end of the world. In the opening couplet he’s not seeking a friend for a last hurrah; he’s hailing humanity’s dying gasps. “Love will lead us all to smithereens” he sings in a graveyard baritone, before a pedal steel crosses over into a skyward chorus. Much of Trouble Will Find Me concerned resignation and the original title (retained here in the chorus) continues the weary theme. The leaden basslines and trilling string sections attempt takeoff, but Berninger halts any departure. “I’m gonna let it in,” he half-whispers under a hail of thundering drum fills in the bridge. The easiest thing to do when you’ve got nothing left is to open up.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack drops November 22 through Lionsgate/Republic, listen to the band’s offering here.   

“Lost Boys and Girls Club”- Dum Dum Girls

Dee Dee Penny’s Dum Dum Girls project began in earnest, staking a claim on lo-fi pop songs unable to keep up their breakneck pace for longer than three minutes. In the early stages, Penny’s voice cut through the static like a dull knife; too soft to stake its own claim but far too sharp to embrace. As the song lengths reached for more ambitious heights, her voice settled into melancholic croon, channeling the spirit of the girl-pop past she often idealized. This settling in after such a momentous early pace made perfect sense. The growing pains that were the subject of so many songs were essentially avoided.

New single “Lost Boys and Girls Club” attempts to find harmony between these disparate strains. Every one of Penny’s lines leisurely spills forth, frequently bleeding into one another until a beginning and end is impossible to pinpoint. Guitars don’t chug along (as they used to), but slowly churn in a dark cauldron. The drum part never rights itself from a lumbering pace. Swipes of synthesizer (a newcomer to the band’s insular world) color the track a hazy grey, making Penny’s forlorn state a few shades darker in the process. All of this hints at a broodier Dum Dum Girls, lingering like never before. Almost as a callback to that bracing past, “Lost Boys and Girls Club” ends after a scant two minutes. Some things never change.

The band’s third LP Too True is out January 29 through Sub-Pop. Listen to the new track here.

“Fade Away”- Best Coast

Early into barreling opener “This Lonely Morning”, Best Coast singer Bethany Cosentino half-sneers over rippled power-chords and a 1-2 drum beat “the haze is on my mind, I’m running from myself this time.” In the midst of a song preoccupied by escaping “the waiting”, the line is perfectly logical. No one wants “sameness” constantly following them, if there’s anything to truly be afraid of its monotony. And it’s those feelings of “sameness”, of jogging in place, that Best Coast attempt to escape on new “mini-album” Fade Away.

Sophomore LP The Only Place dodged criticisms of being “slick” and inert, many believing Jon Brion’s production work stymied Best Coast’s whirlwind pace. While Brion increased Crazy for You’s fidelity, he knew when to steer clear. Frequently Brion opted for the subtle flourish of a twinkling xylophone or stereo-panning guitar over some grand makeover. Leading up to the release, Cosentino neatly summarized Fade Away, “kind of it you took Crazy for You and the Only Place and created a baby out of them.” Fade Away is that offspring, embracing former’s ragged place while finding value in the latter’s careful consideration.

The increased musicianship The Only Place hinted at is further developed here. An entreating tambourine on countdown “Fear of My Identity” widens Best Coast’s percussive palate. Closer “I Don’t Know How” unfurls as a ballad, with the start-stop rhythm section adding to Cosentino’s confusion. After a dour first minute, it collapses. Ticking down an agonizing few seconds, “I Don’t Know How” reconstitutes as a punk vamp. Wisely “Fade Away”s propulsion is stunted, opting for a steady grower instead of a race to the finish line. A slower pace gives Cosentino’s vocals time to stretch out, gliding atop chugging guitars and thudding drums “sometimes I see, the person that’s inside of me, she’s real, she’s mean.” The greatest measure of increased growth to be found is Cosentino’s comfortability in moving from “brawlers” to “bawlers” with ease.

An evolving musical identity is only one half of the equation though. Lyrically Cosentino remains in her wheelhouse. An admission of “my life has come, and gone so fast, I don’t remember much” during gentrified country tune “Baby I’m Crying” is eerily similar to “Last Year”s confession “I just don’t know where time has gone”. Other elements continue to carry the weight of the past. A title like Fade Away isn’t a far cry from master of teen melodrama Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”. Most bizarrely, there’s a brief interpolation of West Side Story in “I Wanna Know”, (“it’s alarming how charming you can be”). Cosentino promises a forgotten past in “Baby I’m Crying”, but Fade Away shows she’s held on to more than a few memories.

One of the great paradoxes of Best Coast’s work is the doubt on permanent display, when the songcraft is so assured. Lodging allegations of “sameness” or accusing Cosentino and instrumentalist Bobb Bruno of playing it safe is reductive. They’ve found a working formula; sticky melodies that often mask a bitter pill of confusion. “I won’t change, I’ll the stay the same” Cosentino bellows on the title track. Fade Away doesn’t escape the feelings of “sameness” because it doesn’t have to. It’s found shelter in the familiar, and for a release modestly billed as a “mini-album” that’s enough of a success.

“Remurdered”- Mogwai

Scottish post-rock group Mogwai is returning this January with their eighth studio LP and to coincide with the announcement, they’ve released the quiet rager “Remurdered”. Barry Burns’ synth fills kick-off the collapse into a bad dream, while the guitars steadily circle in a hypnotic pattern. Slowly, the interstitial guitar fuzz becomes more pronounced, teasing impending doom like so many horror-movie cues. Synths and keyboards weather right in front of you, recalling an animal on its last gasp; drowned out by the chugging rhythm section. Martin Bulloch’s resounding drums remain the surviving heartbeat in a decaying corpse. The band’s previous album Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will serves as an appropriate appendage here. “Remurdered” (like so many horror movie villains) doesn’t die, it continually lingers in the shadows; ensuring peril is just a lumbering step away.

Mogwai returns with Rave Tapes January 21 through Sub Pop. The tracklist can be found below and you can listen to “Remurdered” here.

1. “Heard About You Last Night”
2. “Simon Ferocious”
3. “Remurdered”
4. “Hexon Bogon”
5. “Repelish”
6. “Master Card”
7. “Deesh”
8. “Blues Hour”
9.“No Medecine For Regret” 
11. “The Lord Is Out Of Control”

“Think Like A Machine, Not A Boy”- The Flaming Lips

Even with releases by Kanye West and Nine Inch Nails vying for a spot as the bleakest, most oppressive offerings of 2013, the Flaming Lips’ latest LP stands head and shoulders above the rest. Yeezus featured a brief soulful detour by way of “Bound 2″, and Reznor’s work has the promise of remaining up-tempo as you careen over the cliff. The Flaming Lips’ last official studio album Embryonic had a host of feedback-laden freakouts to interrupt the existential crisis that had overtaken them. Meanwhile, The Terror possessed none of those qualities. For much of the album’s 55 minutes, they drifted further into the mire. Relationships crumbled and they only tried harder; unwilling or unable to see that the light at the end of tunnel had burnt out.

“Think Like A Machine, Not A Boy” (the first track to debut from their upcoming Peace Sword EP) retains the blaring synthesizer histrionics of The Terror, though it’s a single dark cloud speckling the landscape. Wayne Coyne’s voice can never fully offer comfort (that slight warble is tinged with uncertainty); nevertheless it’s the most assuring take we’ve heard from the frontman in some time. Coyne is in seeker mode as he strums away at an acoustic guitar, searching for a contaminant that’s poisoned his mind. Doubt is pervasive, however it’s not as defeating here. Coyne’s asking why and no longer is it an open-ended question. The struggle continues and they’re finally showing some fight.

The Peace Sword EP is out digitally October 29, and will make a CD/vinyl run November 29 through Warner Brothers. Listen to the new song here.