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Quick Hits: Kings, Built to Spill, Alabama Shakes, The Districts

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Quick Hits is a column where I share my occasionally coherent thoughts on (relatively) new releases.

Kings – “Strange Love”

First off, let it be known that this song is funky. Like really funky. A Dirty Mind era Prince jam with less New Wave, more truth. If just anyone could do this than everyone would. But they can’t, there’s just not enough people in the world that can handle a groove like that. It’s overwhelming. But unlike most who travel this path, it avoids pastiche. The beat makes you move, but the arrangement subverts. The guitar adds tension, the mid-song vamp pulls the groove apart at the seams as the sax sews it back up. I’ve now used too many words to say something very simple: this song’s a jam.

Built to Spill – “Living Zoo”

My love for Built to Spill comes and goes. It is also constant. Which is to say, I may forget them from time to time, but whenever I come back I’m pulled back in and I’m pulled in hard. No one plays guitar quite like Doug Martsch and his compatriots in Built to Spill’s three guitar wizardry. It’s not just the winding melody lines and piercing solos, it’s the parade of riffs and counter-melodies, a conversation with multiple voices listening and responding. A Built to Spill jam is a song in its own right, and you know this is a great Built to Spill song because it takes over a minute for the vocals to come in. And no one else really sings like that either. Which is all to say, this is Built to Spill, and it feels good to have them back.

Alabama Shakes – “Don’t Wanna Fight No More”

Alabama Shakes do not waste any time in letting you know their intentions. The beginning sounds innocuous enough, a bouncing guitar melody echoes from both sides, pleasant on the ears. Then the drums enter, steady and deep, coming off as more dusty hip hop sample but booming with purpose. The guitars promptly inform us that they are up to no good. And then that squeal. The whole song is that squeal. There’s a 44 second intro and a 3:09 outro all around that squeal from Brittany Howard. If that doesn’t stop you dead in your tracks and take your breath music may not be for you. I don’t know, maybe that’s hyperbole. Regardless, this album will be a good one. The Alabama Shakes are not here to fuck around or fade away. That much is clear right away.

The Districts – “4th and Roebling”

Remember the last iteration of this column where I professed my soft spot for Strokes and Built to Spill indebted rockers with cathartic choruses and surface level apathy hiding a pained pathos, and those guitars whose progressions collapse in the most emotionally devastating ways while high frequency bouncing melodies dot the t’s and cross the i’s of every word? The Districts do that to the n’th degree. I have no defense. I don’t want a defense. What I’m trying to say is that this album is the kind of work that makes you feel everything you’ve ever felt at once, condenses you into a stupid meaningless dot in the universe, and come out better than unscathed; ragged, raw, and reinvigorated. Oh yeah, they also have a pro’s handle on songwriting dynamics, a sense of arrangement that makes the simple sound complex, and a lyrical knack that balances fine tuned imagery with raw emotionalism and a poetic way with words that never teeters into melodrama. All that matters too. But most of all, this song (and entire album) just destroys me. Anyways, enjoy.

Obsessively Detailed: The Second Verse to Screaming Females’ ‘Broken Neck’

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Obsessively Detailed is a column where I go at length about trivially minute details that get me more excited about a song than is reasonable.

Listen to the riff that hits to the chorus at 0:28. Distorted guitars scrawled against the hospital walls. Then listen to the return to the chorus at 1:07. Marissa’s voice raises, prepping the listener for her trademark squall accompanied with swaths of power chords. Your ears brace for the impact, but it doesn’t come. Instead downright lush sounding full chords come in, it’s almost soothing. There’s the slightest bit of gain, but it’s faint, and the whole experience is bewildering.

This is one of my favorite songwriting tricks, and it’s the kind of move that riff-centric bands rarely get. There’s two goals here, one is the classic of playing with our expectations. A great songwriter knows when to give the listener what they want. People love to have an expectation filled, but they also need to have that expectation subverted to keep them on their toes. The expectation here (especially if you listen to a lot of Screaming Females) is for a big chunky riff. That’s anticipation is rewarded the first go around, then switched out the second time. What’s so great about how it’s executed is that it makes you listen to the song differently every time. That’s the second goal, that through 30 seconds you think you know exactly how the song will go before the floor’s ripped out from you. It gives the illusion of a complex winding song, despite it being in a mostly verse-chorus-verse-bridge format. Not only are you engaging the listener, you’re giving the illusion of complexity while providing a hook without having to even write a melody.

Screaming Females may be well regarded for their tenacious live shows and powerful musicianship, but this right here is pure craft.

Quick Hits Volume V: The Features, Catfish and the Bottlemen, Screaming Females

Quick Hits is a column where I share my occasionally coherent thoughts on (relatively) new releases.

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The Features – “Two Hearts”

I had never heard of this band just a couple of weeks ago. I still know almost nothing about them, other than that they’ve released a handful of albums, are from Tennessee, and sound like the glorious fusion of Spoon and Talking Heads that I’ve apparently been subconsciously pining for my whole life. If Talking Heads formed 3 years ago and Spoon dedicated a career to perfecting “Turn My Camera On”. There’s also that melodica that I don’t think I’ve heard in a song since “Clint Eastwood” subverting the entire robotic two step groove. It also features what’s instantly become a recent favorite of an opening line, “I get a little bit nervous, I get a little bit shy”. Can’t wait for the album.

The Features – “This Disorder”

This one is not new, and it’s the same band as above, but damnit I want to write about them twice. Another robotic groove and an ace vocal delivery ruminating on not being able to put your phone down (and instructions for an alternative) make for a hell of an introduction to a very good band.

Catfish and the Bottlemen – “Kathleen”

I have an insatiable soft spot for this kind of stuff. Strokes-indebted, mainstream-ish indie rock with chord changes that pull my (admittedly easily pulled) cathartic heart strings in all the right ways even when the lyrics are inscrutable or sound like the ramblings of a self-obsessed nihilistic drunk. I know I’m susceptible, I just don’t care. This is a particularly effective entry in the budding mini genre of pop-minded Strokes descendants (who would have thought that a decade later, First Impressions of Earth and not Is This It would be such an influence) , and when they slam into that chorus, it doesn’t matter that he’s over-emoting what’s essentially a drunken complaint about being blue-balled. Critical objectivity can fuck off, I need to blast the volume and sit on someone’s living room floor pounding Yuenglings.

Screaming Females – Empty Head

The narrative to just about every Screaming Females record is that they’re finally shedding their punk clothes and writing catchy songs. Which isn’t quite true, because this band has always been catchy as hell. Sure, Marissa was prone to do things like scream “YOU ARE ALWAYS TALKING AND YOU NEVER STOP!” repeatedly and with tenacity, but she did so tunefully, damnit.  Unsurprisingly “Empty Head” from their upcoming Rose Mountain is no different, sturdy hooks fearsomely constructed, buffeted by a band whose playing has improved leaps and bounds on every record. It’s rare to see a group that can lock into each other’s every move this well, so that the outpouring is not only well constructed, but wholly singular. When Screaming Females lay into a riff it never sounds like three people playing their instruments, it’s a single being, charging headlong into your skull. But, you know, tunefully.