Quick Hits is a column where I share my occasionally coherent thoughts on (relatively) new releases.
Avers – “Evil”
Sometimes a song can act as a skeleton key for a whole album. When I first listened to the debut album from RVA’s own Avers, Empty Light, I did it as a cautious skeptic. Which is odd for me; I typically take the route of unabashed enthusiasm. But the level of adoration the local media was heaping on these guys irked me a bit. After all, some of our finest homegrown talent had banded together to create…a shoegaze record? The initial offerings of “White Horses” and “Empty Light” were texturally beautiful and well built. They sounded pristine, but my (admittedly cursory) first listen left no impression. It sounded more like shoegaze than psych, and though as a person who writes about music, I am legally required to be unabashedly in love with the genre (I’m not), I was a little disappointed.
So when the record came out I turned it on and promptly busied myself with other work and paid it little mind. Until “Evil” came on. The beat plods, unchanging yet somehow dynamic when put against the shifting background. A persistent cranium thumping that feels different depending on how the bass lines up next to it. And oh my, those bass lines; the low end evolves from droning rumble to descending hammer of the gods, from dextrous showmanship to bricklaying ascension making way for what constitutes a bridge here. That bridge is naught but a chiming guitar, spinning around four notes, sucking the air out of the garden and into the depths of space. I heard this song and suddenly the entire album changed. Avers came to wash over us in beautifully crafted guitar tones, yes, but they also came to rip our heads off, point them to the stars, and set the world to spinning. Wonderful.
Lee Bains II & the Glory Fires – “The Weeds Downtown”
I know a lot of people who’ve left their assorted hometowns to find glory and adventure in the New York’s and Los Angeles’ and etc.’s of the world. I’ve also thought a lot about how this drift of talent and creativity affects the places that are left behind, and often wonder how that connects to the proliferation of strip-malls, chain restaurants, and vinyl sided houses; the lack of excitement and community in so many places. The fact that we’ve designated locations for taking chances and creating something that excites us, and places to make do. As if creativity and entrepreneurship can only exist in pre-approved pockets of the land. One day I’ll cohere my thoughts enough to write intelligently about it, but in the meantime I think Lee Bains III says something close with a fiery passion better than I can on Dereconstructed.
His message is much wider and better expressed than what I’ve shared, but this song hit me hard because it’s seems so close in spirit. “The Weeds Downtown” is my favorite cut from that excellent record at the moment, the emotional linchpin where their ragged and raw garage rock fury slows down just a tad, finds the optimum amount of heart-string pulling in the fuzz drenched chord progressions, and slams the point home. Key lyric: “I know the new architecture is largely depressing/And the politics are pretty regressive/But ain’t shining a light on what’s dark kind of your thing”. Also, The Bitter Southerner happened to do a fantastic write-up on Dereconstructed, check it out.
Lightfields – “Junior”
Maybe what Silversun Pickups would sound like if they listening to Blink 182 instead of all those kinda boring shoegaze records? Who cares about comparisons though, these boys hail from Richmond, VA and just released a fairly strong debut by the same name as this stellar track. But if delightfully fuzzy guitar melodies, a fervently ridden cymbal, chant-ready gang vocals that compel you to write in all-caps (“I DON’T NEED IT ENOUGH TO WANT IT!!!”), and a slow burn guitar breakdown that leads into a big time sing-along doesn’t reach into your soul with a Gibson SG shaped arm and pull out a stubborn, weary catharsis this probably isn’t for you. Then again, if that does sound like something that might work on you, fucking fuck, listen to this track already.
Morning Teleplortation – “Expanding Anyways”
I saw these guys open for Modest Mouse a month ago and was mightily impressed. Their live show matched prog and math rock chops with some bluesy guitar intensity and a voice that was sincere if not wholly confident. It was wondrous and I left with a CD in hand. On record, they hew a bit closer to Ween then anything else, flitting through genres as they see fit, manically spitting out lyrics that can be surreal at one turn, poignant the next. “Expanding Anyways” sees them toning down the antics (a bit) just enough for a truly joyous chorus to peek through. The almost jazzy interplay reminds me of seeing White Denim live in their earlier days, where both band are able to effortlessly glide from uplifting to frenetic and slide into some devastating guitar solos. This song is a bit old, hailing from their last album, 2011’s Expanding Anyway, but here’s hoping they’ve got some new stuff planned.
A bit of a confession. I don’t know much about this record. I only vaguely know who’s responsible (some occasional members of Olivia Tremor Control and Vic Chesnutt’s band, according to the handy sticker on my record jacket). I’m mostly unfamiliar with the myriad influences here, and honestly feel unqualified to speak much about an album filled with music that has only tenuous connections to the worlds I typically deal in. I bought this record on a whim while in Athens, Georgia’s wonderful Wuxtry Records, and only did that because the giant wooden dancer on the cover spoke to me in ways I didn’t fully comprehend (this is a wonderful way to buy records by the way, it has never steered me wrong).
The music here occasionally sounds like folk and classic country. It occasionally sounds like a New Orleans funeral procession, and often like a long lost pre-rock Psychedelic album. Some of it sounds vaguely Native American, but that could be the cover coloring my perceptions. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album with so much clarinet. I’m reminded of Modest Mouse at times, at their freakiest and folkiest, but I think that says more about my lack of knowledge than it does about the music itself.
Remarkably this mix never feels disjointed from song to song, each shrouded in mystery with influences bleeding together like watercolors. The disparate parts form a heady mix as a banjo-led, middle eastern dirge dives into unconventional yet familiar folk rock. The sharp left turns shouldn’t work on paper, but the album leaves the impression that an underlying presence is at work, and it comes across in the details more than the aesthetic signifiers.
What drives these songs is the sense of barely contained chaos and brooding existentialism in the instrumentation. Banjo riffs attack frenzied and heavy, pedal steel adds a wistful lightness that’s more heartbreaking than uplifting, the percussion, in it’s many forms, plods with a creeping inevitability, while fiddles buzz menacingly. The music is often bracing, even when it’s completely off kilter, but the effect is belied by the coying fullness of the clarinet and horn parts.
These unconventional instruments anchor most of the songs here, thick beams of light teasing out melodies pitched somewhere between schoolyard chants and childish lullabies. They’re the parts most likely to push away casual listeners while being the easiest pieces to get lodged into your skull. It makes for an intriguing dynamic throughout the record. As the base arrangements and lyrics boil over with churning anxiousness and guarded catharsis the horn parts serve to pervert and amplify whatever feeling is at work. They serve as the helping hand in times of need; the unrealistic perceptions we measure ourselves against; the hollow promise behind a tired cliche; a reliable slice of illogical but much needed optimism. The back and forth is fought throughout the record, the end result an uneasy existential truce that feels hard won but well earned.
And yet, after all that poetic waxing, the showstopper of the album does away with that dynamic entirely. “Everyday I’m Building a Fool” has everything a great folk ballad could want; tinges of regret and loss, a self deprecating wit balanced with a slice of unknowable oddness; harmonies suitably gorgeous, coming when least expected but most needed; fiddle playing that is not to be fucked with, and a stomp that hits like the weight of the world falling on your chest at every beat.
Wester Easter is a record that feels like a place to explore. It manages that tricky feat where it brings together the emotions underlying the songs and the details propelling them together to feel like a realized whole, even when the songs feel as if they’re falling apart. Simply put, Wester Easter is a fantastic place to be lost.