Monday, May 29, 2017

Record Roundup: Rock On (And On)

I made a tiny zine about long songs - let me know if you want a copy!
So far, 2017 is proving to be a good year for what we still call rock music. Part of the vitality of the form can be felt in two emerging trends I have observed starting earlier this year.

1. Live Albums: Rock has always thrived on stage and one of its central challenges has been capturing that lightning in the studio. A good live album bypasses that issue and gives us the raw, uncut power we seek (although sometimes with a little tweaking). As I noted in my review of the excellent and exploratory live album by Brazilian psych-rockers Boogarins, official concert releases haven't been so common lately. But even before that album came out, Sleater Kinney put out the explosive Live In Paris, which must have been manna for fans, as was Carrie & Lowell Live by Sufjan Stevens. Hiss Golden Messenger also put out a beautiful document of an early concert from their current tour. Get it for free - and if it doesn't compel you to by a ticket next time M.C. Taylor comes to town, I don't know what will. Perhaps this trend is a reaction to the bolted together industrial strength shiny objects that dominate the top 40. Either way, it's a heartening development and I think there will be more. 

2. Epic Tracks: Long songs by rock bands is another trend that has ebbed and flowed ever since Dylan waxed Like A Rolling Stone and The Doors ended their debut with The End. While they've never gone away entirely, this was the first year that I've felt moved to start gathering songs longer than seven minutes in a Spotify playlist imaginatively called Epic Tracks 2017. Maybe it's the Blackstar effect, as the title track from Bowie's final album was a 10-minute masterpiece, or it could be inspiration from Car Seat Headrest, who turned heads in 2016 with The Ballad of Costa Concordia, which powered on for 11 minutes and change. 

When it came to starting up the playlist, more than one song from Father John Misty's astonishing Pure Comedy could have made the cut. Tough choice, but I picked the incantatory expanse of Leaving L.A., which devastates in one minute and causes a snarky chuckle in the next, to finish the mix. His old colleagues Fleet Foxes are also included, represented by First Of May/Ôdaigahara, the suite-like first single from their upcoming album

A less expected occupant is my cousin, Billy Joseph, with the title track to his lushly produced album Ride On The Mystery, which finds him pushing his voice into new places, before letting guitars and synths take over. I was also surprised - and most pleasantly - to hear Jay Som stretch out on For Light, the last song of Everybody Works, her striking collection of sophisticated indie - all recorded in her bedroom. She really can do it all. 

While lengthy songs are common in metal, Mastodon's latest, Emperor of Sand, is such a killer return to form that I dropped Jaguar God into the list. The Feelies have also been known to play long and, as it happens, my favorite song from their lethargic new album is In Between (Reprise), a blistering 11 minute rocker. LCD Soundsystem is another sacred cow that disappoints as often as it delights, but fortunately their new single is in the latter category and one song, Call the Police, is a natural fit for the playlist at just over seven minutes. 

Keep me in the loop on anything I've missed - I'm hoping the Epic Tracks 2017 playlist itself goes to epic length by the end of the year!

In addition to the albums mentioned above, here are three other rock albums that I've been returning to often.

The Courtneys - II This is a familiar sound: driving rhythms, guitars that chime, grind, and mesh, taut bass lines, edgy-sweet female vocals, a whiff of the 90's. Familiar enough, in fact, that I almost turned away. But then the hooks got their hooks into me, the band's conviction and craftsmanship became more convincing, and the lyrics revealed a sly commentary on the nostalgia the music seemed to represent: "You'll never get old and you'll never die/It just makes me want to cry." It's an addictive, joyful collection that improves on their debut in every way. No sophomore slump here! Start with Silver Velvet or Lost Boys (yes, an homage to the Kiefer Sutherland classic) to see if your boat gets afloat. The Vancouver-based band is on an extensive world tour (sometimes as an opening act), which will be returning stateside in September. I wish I could see them at the High Watt in Nashville, but I will gladly settle for Park Church Co-op in Brooklyn on October 15th. 

Novella - Change Of State This is also a second album, although the Londoners have been honing their sound since 2010. All that hard work paid off in their distinctive debut, Land, which came out in 2015. So Novella's progress is more incremental than The Courtney's, but it shows in the greater focus they bring to their crystal-clear psych-rock, which starts with flowing melodies and marries shimmering guitars to a hypnotic beat that casts back to Klaus Dinger's motorik drumming in Krautrock pioneers Neu. First-timers should dial up the title track or A Thousand Feet, with its haunting refrain of "But there's nothing there," and a spacious arrangement that probably gives plenty of opportunities to stretch out in concert. Now if they would just play NYC...or at least make a live album.

Spoon - Hot Thoughts By now an American institution, Spoon returned after three years with yet another terrific album, their ninth in a 20 year career. The production shows even more attention to detail than their last, They Want My Soul, which is saying a lot. Their ongoing fascination with techniques borrowed from hip hop and R&B continues to inject sonic excitement into the songs, which are already little wonders of jagged chord changes and jarring emotions. Dave Fridmann (known for his work with the Flaming Lips) is once again their able co-conspirator in the production chair, and I also note that main songwriter Britt Daniel is using co-writers outside of the band, which is unusual. I'm not sure if that is the source of the more telegraphic, minimalist style of some of the lyrics, or some other aspect of the songs.

Another difference is that the core of the album was recorded as a quartet, without multi-instrumentalist Eric Harvey, who had been a member since 2004. This seems to expose the other players' contributions - in a good way, with Rob Pope shining especially bright on bass and adding a post-punk edge to keep things from getting too polished. Jim Eno is forever superb on the drums and newest member Alex Fischel continues to deploy intriguing keyboard textures while also being Daniel's sparring partner on guitar. These changes in personnel and process may be what it takes to keep things fresh this far into their career. While they have sometimes been accused of being formulaic, I can safely say that nothing else they've put out sounds like the nearly ambient Pink Up, which could almost be from side two of Bowie's Low, or Us, a melancholy instrumental laced with spacey sax (by Ted Taforo) that transports me to the futuristic L.A. of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. It's an adventurous ending and one that points in new directions. Like rock music itself, Spoon continues to be surprisingly durable and rewarding - long may they reign.

P.S. If the music described herein is in your sweet spot, follow my Rock, Folk, Etc. playlist on Spotify to hear more and keep up with new releases.

You may also enjoy:
Boogarins Live: Parallel Play
Long Time Coming
Bulletproof Spoon
Live Review: Play Misty For Me

Epic Tracks 2017


  1. A mi me gustan los courtneys! The perfect blend of the donnas, Julianna Hatfield, and scrawl.

    1. Glad you found something to love & thanks for reading. Tell your friends!