Sunday, October 16, 2016

Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc.

A few years ago I was very nearly convinced that there was a generational divide about guitars. The six-stringed wonder seemed to be less and less relevant to people who came of musical age in the 80's and 90's, which made me slightly sad, I'll admit. Don't get me wrong - I love synthesizers, sampling, turntablism and all kinds of studio trickery, and I'm certainly not advocating a return to guitar hero wankery. I just feel that there is a unique disturbance to the air caused by strings vibrating in some kind of interval-based tuning, whether over a magnetic coil pickup or a soundhole, or both. Acoustic, electric, six or 12 string, solo and in combination, I just really, really like guitars.

Now I see I needn't have worried. This year there's been an explosion of good to great guitar albums and bands, some of which (Cian Nugent, Car Seat Headrest, Wire) were among my best of the year so far. What follows here is a quick tear, in no particular order, through some of the other guitar-driven jams that have been getting me out of the fug of 2016 on a regular basis. Politics, schmolitics, let's tune up and plug in. Rocking out is optional.

Exmagician - Scan The Blue This is the sound of a couple of music lifers finding their sweet spot. A little too clean to be shoegaze, but with some of that propulsion, and not bombastic enough to be Britpop but with some of that melodic grandeur. Job Done should be a hit and there's not a bad song to be found. 

Journalism - Faces I may be the only one I know for whom this was a long-awaited debut. I enthused a few years ago when Denim Jesus showed up on SoundCloud, immediately impressed with its power, polish and wit. While they played a concert now and then, I wasn't really sure if they were a going concern. Who knows what the deal was - in any case the full length is here, nine driving rock songs with a psychedelic edge. This is what rock radio should be playing. 

Pale Dian - Narrow Birth I stumbled on these guys when they opened for Cheatahs last time I was in Austin. Like the headliners, they were monumentally loud, but I was able to discern a sweet interplay between the guitar and synth, along with a gift for well-turned melodies. When the album came out, I was a tiny bit disappointed that it sounded so familiar: a little bit of MBV and JAMC, a touch of Siousxie, some Blondie. So they're noise-pop classicists in the end, but they do it very well. Great production, too. 

The Stargazer Lilies - Door To The Sun The Lilies were touring with Pale Dian so I cued them up, even though I couldn't make it to the show - yet another way I discover new music. It's easy to see why they were put together, as they strike a lot of the same chords as Pale Dian, with perhaps a touch more originality. When is the split "Pale Lilies" single coming out? Or do people not do those anymore?

Nap Eyes - Thought Rock Fish Scale I fell down a defunct blog's rabbit hole one day, reading years of passionate (if slightly amateur) collective criticism about bands that were mostly unsatisfying when I actually heard them. Eventually I hit on Nap Eyes, liked it, found out they had a new album out and liked it even more. There's a new naturalism to their songwriting, that falling-off-a-log ease that is usually hard-won. However they got to this point, it's a delightfully heartfelt album of smart indie rock. You could be their next devoted fan.

Frankie Cosmos - Next Thing So she has famous parents - that doesn't mean her tunefully awkward pop is a put-on or any less charming. While I don't bond as closely with her songs as I do to, say, Hospitality's, she hits some of those targets. She'll probably only get better, too, unless she decides to enter the family business and become an actor.

Tacocat - Lost Time Frankie Cosmos definitely owes a debt to these guys, who have been plying their punky trade for nearly a decade. Lost Time is probably their most "accomplished" album - but don't worry, they haven't killed the fun. It just means that the songs don't meander so much and the sound is better, so you can enjoy the Riot Grrrl rush of songs like I Hate The Weekend all the more easily.

Feral Conservatives - Here's To Almost Okay, so it's not a guitar that Rashie Rosenfarb is strumming but her electric mandolin provides the same pleasures. Great songs, too, and you can read lots more words about this album by me and others on Off Your Radar. Subscribe while you're there, won't you?

Self Defense Family - Colicky Speaking of Off Your Radar, I have my colleague Drew Necci to thank for introducing me to this dark-hued post-punk-referencing group, who have been releasing music under this name since 2011. For It Isn't Very Clear, Is It? alone, Colicky is my favorite of the three EP's and two singles they've put out so far this year, but if you put all the songs in a playlist you'll have a damned good album.

Scott & Charlene's Wedding - Mid Thirties Singles Scene While I'm not connecting as strongly to this album as I did to their last, Craig Dermody still has a way with slightly off-kilter jangle and clever lyrics and everyone should know about this band.

Parquet Courts - Human Performance Even those these Brooklyn sort-of slackers sell out every show in minutes, I somehow think they're underappreciated, taken for granted - even by me. This is easily their best and most varied album since they broke through with Light Up Gold. There's a little more humor and self-deprecation here, as well as clever instrumentation. Dust, Berlin Got Blurry, One Man No City and the title track are all seriously sticky songs that betray new strengths, and Steady On My Mind has some truly velvety guitar interplay. Don't count them out.

Omni - Deluxe While Omni, like some of the other bands here, might be a little too comfortable in their post-punk niche (hell, they even have a song called Wire), this debut is still a terrific listen. Tight, colorful songs, assured playing and sharp production, all by ex-Deerhunter and ex-Carnivores members, seal the deal. If you want to read someone gush over this album, check out my old friend Tim Sommer's review - if that doesn't make you want to listen...

Big Thief - Masterpiece Calling your debut album Masterpiece and then starting it with two minutes of lo-fi wayward warbling is a fun way to play with expectations. But singer/songwriter Adrienne Lenker and co. sound like they're in it for the long haul. Her songs are sturdy and inevitable, and the band serves them well with a canny combo of straight-ahead folk-rock and mathy touches. Perhaps most importantly, Big Thief sound like they're seizing the moment with everything they've got - grab on.

The Amazing - Ambulance I guess if a band called The Amazing named their album "masterpiece" it would be overkill. But this Swedish band's last album, Picture This, was exactly that - a masterpiece - and made it to number six on my Top 20 for 2015. While Ambulance is not quite at that level and could use some of the urgency implied by the title, it's still a beautifully absorbing set of psych-rock. A sly, funky, positively noirish song called Blair Drager stands out like a captivating sore thumb, however - and may hint at new directions for these guys. Special note should be paid to drummer Moussa Fadera whose light touch and detailed playing elevate everything this band does.

Ryley Walker - Golden Sings That Have Been Sung Walker could easily have had a great, low-key career as an acoustic fingerpicking wizard, such are his skills. But his ambitions are greater than that and on his third album he's getting closer to realizing them. Richly textured, expansive songs with wide dynamic range provide an ornate frame for his tenor, with which he is sounding more comfortable on every album. Van Morrison is an obvious touchstone here and if Walker doesn't quite have the lyrical facility of The Man at his best, at least he's pushing hard at his own limitations. Probably my favorite song is Age Old Tale - just pure hypnosis. If you listen on Spotify, don't skip the mind-blowing 40 minute(!) live take on Sullen Mind. Maybe he'll play it like that at the Market Hotel on November 3rd - or a venue near you.

Lucinda Williams - The Ghosts of Highway 20 I recognize that it seems almost cruelly reductive to include a master like Lucinda Williams in a roundup of this sort. But the fact is that this double-album set is full of gorgeous guitars, duet after duet by Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, both masters in their own right. Also, I will admit that the almost entirely low-key mood of this album has me reaching for it less frequently than I did Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, which had more of that driving groove that she addicted us to on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. Still, many of these songs - Dust, Doors Of Heaven, the title track, If There's A Heaven - are marvels to behold. And who knows - if she tours with Stuart Mathis again, there might be even more six-string fireworks.

Dinosaur Jr. - Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not It should not be that Dinosaur Jr. made one of their best albums over 30 years after their start in 1984. But that is what we have here, people. Give A Glimpse is a celebration of both the melodic smarts of J. Macsis as well as his guitar-titan status. Gritty chords give way to liquid or wonderfully overdriven solos with a casual regularity that is dumbfounding. That sense of mastery combined with surprise is a rare thing indeed. Lou Barlow (bass) and Murph (drums) can do no wrong, providing just the right support and holding the goalposts for one game-winning kick after another. Barlow also wrote and sings on two songs and his lighter style adds some nice variety, also provided by Macsis's prettier moments. Even though they've only made 11 albums in all those years (and took a long hiatus from 1997-2005), let's face it: J. Macsis and Dinosaur Jr. are probably at least part of the reason we're still talking about guitars at all in 2016. Long may they reign.

OK, I think that's enough for now! What guitar-driven stuff has been driving you wild this year? Also, I slightly lied at the start. There is an order to this list, which is based on the way I sequenced the accompanying playlist. It was a fun challenge to blend everything together in a way that made sense. Let me know what you think.

You also enjoy:
Record Roundup: American Tunes
Space, Time, Guitar: Rupert Boyd (a very different kind of guitar playing!)
Record Roundup: Classical Composure

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