May 7th, 2013
To say that I approached Optica with some trepidation is putting it mildly. 2007′s Our Ill Wills is a frontrunner for my favorite album of all time, and in lieu of the disappointment that I found 2010′s Work to be, it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster for me and the SOLs.
I’m happy to report though that Optica makes for a tight, consistent, and moving listening experience. In terms of overall balance, it is one of the few records where I really like the back end more than the front.
The opening riffs on the sun-drenched ‘Sugar’ signal a return to brighter days for our Sweedish pop masters. ‘Illusions’, for me, really represents the sound I was looking for on Work but only caught glimpses of in tracks like ’1999′. It’s just fast enough to dance to, but not frantic; not to mention a beautiful example of how lyrics can manage to be enthralling and yet mostly meaningless.
The bizarre choice of lead single/gimmick of ‘Blue Ice’ is lost on me, and when I first heard it, I resigned myself on the spot to the fact that the SOLs as I’d known and loved them were gone. ‘Blue Ice’ is the exact kind of song I’d come to loathe/ignore on Work. In the end though, the track ends up being a much needed structural pause before we are finally treated to the focal point of the album:
‘14th of July’
[ mp3 ♫ ]
‘14th of July‘ was the moment I was waiting for. Once and future kings of my pop taste, the Shout Out Louds are back. Droning synth and wailing riffs wander through surprisingly well-crafted beats, which frame the painfully nostalgic lyrics that really packs some emotional weight/baggage:
Take me down on the 14th of July
Take me to the fireworks
Show me how fire works
Take me down
Take me to the room / where you grew up
I bet its got a great view
I bet no one loves you
Throw in a break-down bridge before crushing the chorus one final time, and you have the centerpiece of the record, as well as a subtle harbinger of what’s in store.
‘Burn’ is perhaps the canonical retro, lazy-sunday throwback song of the collection. Think days at the beach, matinee movies, and long walks through the neighborhood near dusk. In that vein, ‘Walking In Your Footsteps’ is proof-of-concept that the SOLs can write 70s pop so convincingly you’d swear it was authentic, not to mention a lot of fun.
‘Glasgow’, which I’ll call the first part of this track is a strange, unoffensive number, but the watery, ethereal flute-led melody which follows it steals the show, and turns the page to the final act of Optica which proves to be its darkest, and most memorable.
[ mp3 ♫ ]
The sheer vibe dripping off of ‘Hermila‘ cements it as one of the best songs on the album. Bebban Stenborg lays a soft, cold croon on this eery tale of pursuit and demise. I can’t quite grasp the narrative thread here, but the lack of definition almost makes it creepier. The band has done painful, sad tracks before, but never anything this sinister. Personally, I think it’s fantastic, and worth future pursuit.
Still holding out for some Out Ill Wills-flavored material? ‘Chasing the Sinking Sun’ proves well worth the wait. Excellent percussion through and through, which complements well whatever digital-marimba-filter-type-thing the melody comes out on. Plus I love the refrain,
We were here / that I know
We lost our minds here / long ago
‘Circles’ is the last breather we get before ‘Destroy’, which I consider the complementary song to ‘Hermila’. The flute here is used to a very different effect, a sharp burst of noise in contrast to the distorted cries heard in the background. The song wanders, but in a forlorn, desperate way, that you imagine could be born out of long, dark Swedish winters.
And so, Optica ends not with an exasperated, careless ellipses, nor a definitive exclamation point, but a dissonant question mark. I don’t know what this album means for the future of the Shout Out Louds, but with a much richer pallet of sounds than we’ve seen on anything previous, it’s nothing but encouraging.
I’m done wanting a new Our Ill Wills; that record would probably pale in comparison anyways. The band has something different and fantastic up their sleeves, and even if Optica isn’t quite a triumph of that sound… well, let’s call this the comeback.
February 27th, 2013
And as we walk / through an hour long pregnant pause
No grain of truce can be born
My bridge is burned / and perhaps we'll shortly learn
That it was arson all along
Part of the fun of pursuing music in earnest is that each new album holds the promise of being something you come to really love. But not every album can be that album, and what do you do when an artist whose work was genius fails to meet expectations the second time around? What then?
This was precisely my problem in March of 2010. I’d just finished being thoroughly engrossed in 2008′s Midnight Organ Fight (don’t forget: it’s a euphemism for sex! try working it into conversation), and was getting amped about it’s successor, The Winter of Mixed Drinks. Despite being similarly praised from a critical standpoint, Winter was a huge disappointment to me.
There were a few songs on it I liked OK. But there’s a handful of songs I like on nearly every album I listen to. Maybe it’s my fault, but nonetheless I never managed to connect with that album. I tried tracking back further, to 2007′s Sing the Greys, but at that point I just wanted vocalist Scott Hutchinson to shut up.
And that’s where I left it. So you can imagine the trepidation with which I approached Pedestrian Verse. Since I’d pirated every last bit of my Frightened Rabbit collection though, it seemed only fair that I at least put up the cash to buy one record, as a sort of amends. In case you can’t sense what’s coming, I’ll spoil The Twist: Pedestrian Verse is a(n understated) masterpiece.
Too much exposition; here is a track for your ears to chew on:
[ mp3 ♫ ]
I’m throwing ‘Holy‘ out there because it was the first track that I found myself looking forward to on the album. It continues the trend (see: ‘Head Rolls Off’) of a highly sardonic attitude towards religion. The guitar work, both lead and bass, is top notch, and the lyricism, while evoking a pretty elemntary example of wordplay, does so to an impressive degree:
I don’t mind / being lonely
So leave me alone
Aw, you’re acting all holy
Me- I’m just full of holes
The further parlance of biblical terms into barbed criticisms on top of the up-tempo pace makes this great track have near the start of the record. I’ll save discovering the epic, expansive opener ‘Acts of Man’ for yourself. Painting a quasi-tragic picture of all humankind through a series of two-stanza vignettes, it’s incredibly heartfelt without being trite, getting at the wide spectrum of emotional experiences that define the human condition.
I’ll insert briefly my comment on the bizarre choice of ‘The Woodpile’ as the lead single for the album. It’s a perfectly fine song, and maybe it fits some criterion for radio-friendliness that I’m missing, but there are so many better tracks on the album. In fact, if it was up to me, ‘Late March, Death March‘ would be the song I’d most want to hear on the radio.
‘Late March, Death March’
[ mp3 ♫ ]
As with the earlier offered track, there is no love for religion to be found here. My own personal bias is undoubtedly bleeding in here, but I can’t help but appreciate how well this is done:
I cursed in church again, and the hand-claps all fell quiet
I watched the statue of you cry
. . .
There’s a funeral in your eyes
and a drunk priest at your side
. . .
Yeah, there isn’t a God, so I save my breath
Pray silence for the road ahead
And this March death march, March!, Death!, March!
Yeah I went too far
What’s interesting is the light, fast percussion that pervades the entire song is so much faster than any march could ever be. Typically marches are a slow affair, and they certainly never exceed ‘brisk’ in their describing. Yet here, ‘Late March, Death March’ is unbridled in its refrain, pausing only for the verses. Best lyric of the album is in this song, too, transcribed at the top of the entry (it is wrong everywhere else on the internet).
Everything after, the alternating tempos of ‘December’s Traditions’, the honest confessions of ‘Dead Now’, is part of a circuitous route towards the cinematic climax at the album’s heart, ‘State Hospital’. Released as a single a few months before the record, I head it, liked the video, and didn’t think much of it. But in the context of Pedestrian Verse it’s so much more.
‘Acts of Man’ sets the stage: we see, from far up above, a world full of flawed, selfish people doing their best but failing, often quite miserably. ‘State Hospital’ plunges us down into that world, until our vantage is limited to a single individual. And there, amid the desperation, is a song about hope. It’s one of my favorite moments of the album.
‘Nitros Gas’ is a little indulgent, if I’m being honest; it’s my least favorite type of FR song. That said, it’s a serviceable comedown track, and sets up the playful ‘Oil Slick’ for a very satisfying close.
Frightened Rabbit has never suffered from good songcraft, but I maintain that they’re at their best when that skill is used to communicate something worthwhile. Pedestrian Verse is an elegantly layered construction with strong narrative framing and thoughtful motifs threaded throughout. The expanse of it is breathtaking. Listen to this record.
Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
(At time of press, the CD was cheaper than the MP3s!)
February 21st, 2013
You never really knew me
Never ever, never ever saw me
Saw me like they did
Canadian sisters Tegan and Sara have been making music professionally since they were 19, and so by their 7th studio album, this perhaps seems like old hat to them. To the extent that the pair continues to churn out power-pop gold, it is business as usual, but Heartthrob is noticably distinct from its predecessors.
The album I’m most familiar with, So Jealous, featured comparatively sparse instrumentation, and the lighter soundscape was the perfect environment for more intimate moments. Even at its most gutsy, the tracks were no-nonsense and got right to the point.
On 2009′s Sainthood they further steeped themselves in new wave trappings, while still maintaining the characteristic punch and grit of their vocals. This trend is extended even further with the Katy Perry-influenced (inspired?!) Heartthrob.
It’s one of the most refined pop records I’ve ever heard. Though the Quinn sisters are decidedly outside the teenage period of their own lives, they still effortlessly tap right into the issues at the heart of the trials and tribulations of young people. And as adult songwriters, they are completely licensed to sensualize their music for a little flavor. Opening track ‘Closer’ features the humorous confession:
All you think of lately / is getting underneath me
All I dream of lately / is how to get you underneath me
This works quite well because it isn’t delivered in some pouty voice, meant to titilate or arouse- it’s a fun turn of phrase because the assertion is something the assert-er is apparently just as guilty of. The nuance and precise humor of it derives largely from the tone and delivery, a subtlety few pop songs can boast.
And the melodies! It will never happen, but the earlier parts of the record are built to be put through countless plays on the radio well into the summer. We could pick almost anything in the first act of the album to make this point, but as an exemplar I’ve chosen ‘Drove Me Wild‘:
‘Drove Me Wild’
[ mp3 ♫ ]
Light, bouncing vocals tracks over slightly fuzzy guitars and a few layers of synth keyboards make for a perfect driving-with-the-windows-down tune. Truly, these ladies know their craft.
But to do that for an entire record is almost too easy, and we are treated to a change of tone in the second act. ‘How Come You Don’t Want Me Now?’ is a biting, accusatory song lamenting a love had and inexplicably lost. It’s still pristine synth-pop, but with a bit of an undertow now.
The album continues with the excellent ‘I Couldn’t Be Your Friend‘, which turns the tables. Here, the voice of the song is more akin to the antagonist of one of these unplesant situations, admitting freely,
Now you wanna cry / call me a cheater
Left you to die / though I did neither
I thought that it would / that it would be best for me
‘Couldn’t Be Your Friend’
[ mp3 ♫ ]
Maybe its just my world-weary self looking for another well-traveled soul, but the lyrics here read like someone doing the dirty work of breaking up for good. Somehow the battery of pitch-modulated ‘oh-oh-oh-oh-oh’s make it easier to bear, though.
This all leads us to the closing track, ‘Shock to Your System’. It’s easily the darkest moment of the album, what with its big Depeche Mode tones opening the song. Another honest assessment of a bad situation, the refrain of ‘what you are / what you are / what you are is lonely’ is more haunting that hurtful. It’s a plain statement of fact, rather than a lament.
All of this to say that Heartthrob is a pop record built on heart rather than fluff. The sisters Quinn offer you substance and style. No need to compromise. First great record of 2013.
February 8th, 2013
Seemed like a thing worth doing.
At approximately 9:40 last night I got the BC-Alert that told us school had been canceled. As a result, I slept in this morning.
Waking up at about 10, I got a slew of emails necessairly canceling all the stuff that was supposed to happen at school today.
Snow began in earnest at around 10:40.
Posted below for your listening pleasure is the vaguely apocolyptic ‘Devil’s Work‘ off of Miike Snow’s excellent Happy To You from 2012.
[ mp3 ♫ ]
Check back for updates as the day progresses!
12:00 PM – BC shuttle shut down. Guess I’m walking to school.
2:00 PM – Ooops. Watched the first disk of Community Season 3 (thanks for the Xmas gift, mom!)
2:02 PM – Ethan Struby suggests this is the official soundtrack of the storm.
2:45 PM – Left for school. Took some pictures along the way:
3:30 PM – Arrived at school; MBTA officially offline for the day.
4:00 PM – Road travel is apparently banned now.
7:12 PM – Just got in the door. Walk back was sooooooo much tougher. Colder from no sun, trudging through anywhere from 6-12 inches worth of snow, and just mad craaaaazy wind! Spooky being on my normal path with absolutely no cars anywhere. Near Cleavland Circle I saw some people milling around. Bars are packed, and everyone seems in good spirits. Lots of dudes in snowplow trucks keeping busy. So far though, not a bad blizzard.
January 31st, 2013
So it’s late, but that’s life.
It was a necessary step for me to begin to get back on the music horse after a pretty abysmal showing November – January.
As always, hit up the Music Calendar for my personal checklist of stuff to check out in the coming months!