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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.

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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.

Quick Hits Volume 4: Bahamas, White Laces, Benjamin Booker, Flying Lotus

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

Bahamas – “All the Time”

“All the Time” starts off unassuming enough. Gentle acoustic guitar picking, a steady rhythm with fluttering hi-hats, backed by coos and aahs. And, for some reason, a squelching two note bass line. It’s the last thing you’d expect here, but it takes what could have easily been a trifling breeze of a song and gives it an unusual edge. Something is clearly not right with this picture. “I’ve got all the time in the world/Don’t you want some of that?” The call and response vocals take on the demented quirkiness that modern indie rock loves to affect when stealing from R&B and hip-hop. Then the lead guitar screams in and the picture is set. At first a simple slide line stating the melody, layers are carefully poured on, precision-placed muted clucks next to frantic spirals of distortion, weaving together to form a lattice around the squelching bass grid. Bahamas’ previous album showed an artist content to bask in lilting amiability, but here we have contentedness laced with nervous energy and a foreboding but hopeful darkness. Unfortunately the rest of the album reverts to Jack Johnson-esque beach-side-front-porch pickin’ (fellow single “Stronger Than That” being the notable exception), but it’s hard to take exception when an artist can hit at least one song this far out of the park.

White Laces – “Nothing Clicks”

Richmond’s White Laces make the kind of new wave-y shoegaze I typically approach with some kind of combination of shrug, eye-roll, and a half-hearted attempt at an open minded listen. These guys are different though. Their first album was a strong debut showing a knack for making insidiously sticky hooks out of piercing guitar lines, elongated choruses, and reverb applied in heaping spoonfuls. “Nothing Clicks” is one of our first looks at their much anticipated sophomore effort, Trance, and like the first single “Skate Or Die” it’s probably the best song they’ve put out yet. The building blocks are more of the same, swirling synths are laid down as a canvas before a trebly guitar melody gets bowled over by a sure-footed drum beat barreling down as frontman Landis Wine languidly pours out reverbed vocals. Meanwhile the bass line alternates between self churning propulsion system and loping counter melody to top off the concoction. The sound is familiar, but it’s executed so well and fucked with in just the right places to sound fresh and suggest that the band is ready to take a big step forward with their next record.

Benjamin Booker – “Have You Seen My Son?”

Punk and blues have always felt like kindred spirits to me. Bare bones frameworks that allow raw expression to trump technical proficiency. In lesser hands it degrades to aggressiveness or traditionalism trumping songcraft. There’s no shortage of bands in their garages and bedrooms trying to wrangle these inspirations into something that resembles what came before, but if you haven’t put in the work to develop your voice (as in songwriting, not vocals), if you don’t have anything meaningful to say, the whole purpose is lost. Simple frameworks like these exist and are effective artistically because they offer the shortest path from idea to passionate delivery. Benjamin Booker’s debut album is breathtaking because unlike so many others making music in this vein, he has a story that he desperately needs to tell, and “Have You Seen My Son” does it in an exhilarating, frantic rush. Opened with the gale force winds of drummer Max Norton and capped off with coda that moves from noise-rock annihilation to headbanging blues-stomp, the record’s highlight is the perfect summation of everything Booker does so damn well on his debut.

Flying Lotus – “Never Catch Me”

I already wrote about this one at reasonable length for Antiquiet, but to sum up: Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar are unquestionably at the top of their respective fields, and this track might be one of the best things either one has done. CHECK IT OUT.

Quick Hits Volume 3: Sleepwalkers, Spoon, Manatree/Herro Sugar, and J Roddy Walston & the Business

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

Sleepwalkers – “Off on the Weekend”

I’ve seen Sleepwalkers four times this year without even trying.  They emerged from some shadowy bend in the James River, wielding psych-funk jams and making shameless dalliances with 80’s pop  in the various back alleys of the city.  Their early shows opening up for local heavyweights like Black Girls and Avers typically started with a shellacking of heavy groove riffage found in songs like “Prey and Pressure” (which I happened to take a look at a while back as well).  Then things got kinda weird.  I was pretty sure they were covering a Flock of Seagulls song with some consistency and I was a bit lost.  Maybe even taken aback at first. Which might not be fair, but I’ve no shame in my lack of affinity for popular 80’s music not made by Prince.  Now, after a long wait, their most excellent debut album is here, and against all odds the mash of styles kind of makes sense.  That pseudo-Flock of Seagulls track turned out to be their very own “Run Right Back”, which is unmistakably a lost 80’s pop-rock hit, but is executed so well it doesn’t even matter. “Off on the Weekend” is my favorite of the pop leaning tracks on the album. The guitar figure’s so lazy it can’t help but linger deceptively behind the beat, the drums shuffle with an alarming lack of urgency, and the bass line snaps things together with the kind of ambling precision that underpins any great laid-back soul-pop number. And then that pre-chorus. That chorus. That post-chorus! When you’ve got hooks and chops like these you can afford a dip this deep into the cheese bowl.

Spoon – “Do You”

It’s recently come to my attention that large parts of the world, and the online music-community especially (as manufactured and downright silly as that community is, me included), don’t see eye to eye on my estimation that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is Spoon’s undeniable masterwork. That people out there really do prefer Gimme Fiction or Girls Can Tell. Which is fine, I just assumed we were all in agreement for some reason. Spoon have been masters of their sound since their second album, wrangling together groove-heavy (but, by design, never funky) beats, percussive guitar playing, the occasional squealing noise freak out, atypical piano and synthesizer utilization, and a voice that can crack into a rugged shout without ever sounding like it’s trying very hard. To  me, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was the album where the mastery of their sound was finally paired with a mastery of their songwriting style. 2010’s Transference was a fine album, but it also seemed like a retreat to the comforts of their sound. Their latest,  They Want My Soul, feels more like the true predecessor. It’s all unmistakably Spoon, just with a sharper set of songs, and “Do You” might be the finest among them.  As mentioned, Britt Daniel’s voice has a fascinating ability to reach a throaty howl without ever sounding like he’s trying to hard. Likewise, his songwriting has a knack for wringing pathos without ever going heavy handed. “Do You” is breezy pop-rock (it’s hard not to describe something as ‘breezy’ when it kicks off with a series of “doo-doo-doo-doo’s”) in the best possible way. If I cared about such things as a “Song of the Summer”, this would be my personal front-runner, and not just because one verse starts with the line “Someone get popsicles/someone do something ’bout this heat!”.

Manatree/Herro Sugar – “Animal Quietlies”

Herro Sugar were one of the first bands I saw when I moved to Richmond. Opening up for Black Girls (I’m sensing a pattern for these bands), they weren’t even old enough to enter the venue as audience members, but their songwriting chops and instrumental chemistry were obvious. Only a couple of years later, and with a name-change in hand, they’re prepping the release of a proper debut after a successful Kickstarter and a heck of a lot of support from veterans of the scene (their album was co-produced by members of Avers and The Trillions (whom I’ve somehow yet to cover here, but that will be rectified soon enough as they’ve got a new album on the way as well)). “Animal Quietlies” along with “Something” mark the first new music from these guys and it’s an impressive leap forward. The guitar interplay is especially impressive, cycling through riffs and intertwining leads. The track starts with a cloying, trebly guitar figure, occasionally bolstered by some distorted reinforcements. Elsewhere, the fuzz gets turned up, arpeggios spiral in from the sky, and tempo shifts bludgeon you into submission. There’s a palpable chemistry in the instrumentation that shows how long they’ve been playing together. It’s one thing to be able to stack layer after layer onto a track, it’s quite another to have multiple playing and writing styles mesh together to such a cohesive whole. The singing is borderline deadpan, but deftly manages that fine line between weary pathos and boredom/lack of confidence, always finding itself on the winning side. Considering the two tracks on display here aren’t even professionally mastered yet (in the audio sense, that is), and that this band is putting out songs of this quality so early in their career, it’s hard not to get a little overly excited about what’s to come.

J Roddy Walston & the Business – “Take It As It Comes”


OK, so this song isn’t new, but the video is (kind of, new enough at least), so I think that’s excuse enough to write about it. It also happens to be a song from my favorite album of the past 12 months (I wrote about Essential Tremors in my 2013 Top-Ten post, and it’s since taken over number 1) and my most played album in the time by what I estimate to be a very healthy margin.  This track is among my favorite from the record (top 8 at least, which is high praise, even considering there’s only 11 songs) and the video more than does it justice. A steady groove accented by some reggae-like snare hits start things off with an infectious bounce before Ziggy Stardust harmonies line the pre-chorus while boogie piano and bluesy guitar licks lurk behind what might be J Roddy’s best vocal performance on record yet. His voice goes from soulful croon to out-and-out wailing with incredible ease. It’s also worth noting that it’s worth the price of admission to a live show just to see him bounce in his piano bench singing this song. What I like most about the video though is the focus on the lyrics. At first blush they sound straight forward (“You gotta take it as it comes” isn’t an overly complicated sentiment after all) but on deeper inspection (and the help of not having to decipher his howl) there’s a healthy dose of absurdity and darkness lurking under the surface (not to mention a knack for unique imagery that most songwriters in rock bands never even approach). Families claimed, money made, guns loaded, it’s probably best you figure it out for yourself.  It’s been a pleasure watching this band’s stock steadily rise this year, and though I likely won’t get to see them in punk clubs like Strange Matter again, I can’t say I’m surprised with songs this good. “Your eyes say there was a choice but/Mouths move for destiny”.

Quick Hits Volume 2: Avers, Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires, Lightfields, and Morning Teleportation

Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires Band Photo

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.

Quick Hits: Black Keys, Jack White, Rotary Downs, and Hypercolor

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

The Black Keys – “Fever”

Here is a list of ways to describe “Fever” I scribbled down while mildly drunk and listening to this song for the first time:

  • Like falling down a set of stairs into a moon bounce
  • Like kissing a stripper you thought was your sister only to find she’s neither
  • Like birds chirping in your ear because they wanna get busy with your beard
  • Like drinking a beer, spilling it, and having the libation fall into a wormhole which opens back up in your mouth so you get to drink your dropped brew

The Black Keys – “Turn Blue”

And in a similar vein of questionable sobriety, here’s how I would describe their second single:

  • Like stepping into quicksand, being pulled under and falling out the bottom into a pit of recently fluffed pillows waiting below
  • Like getting high and listening to a rave three houses down while trying to watch the Earth turn
  • Like watching your friend drop acid and wonder why the lights are suddenly looking at you funny while you slowly begin to believe he’s right
  • Like getting lost in a strange city that’s speaking a foreign language and you’re tapped on the shoulder by a face you think you know but can’t quite place

Jack White – “Lazaretto”

I have nothing clever or interesting to say about this, I just have a feeling Jack White’s second solo album will be something really special.  Also, the hornets nest buzz he gets between notes on his solos get me all giddy inside.  It’s as if instead of playing guitar he just tears down some powerlines and shapes the resulting sparks into whatever unholy sounds he can concoct. It’s probably my favorite new wrinkle White’s added to his playing recently.

Rotary Downs – “Flowers in Bloom”

What’s that song about tripping on daisies or something?  I don’t know.  Anyways,  this song sounds like tripping and falling into a face full of mud but being so high you think it’s a cloud and you’re floating away on gusts of Rotary Downs-patented psych-guitar counter-melodies as the voice of someone else’s god calls out, obscured by static and reverb.  In less esoteric terms, these guys put out one of my favorite albums of the past few years with 2010’s Cracked Maps & Blue Reports, and although this song sounds like a return to their pre-Blue Reports ways, I couldn’t be more excited they are finally peeking their heads out of their New Orleans home for us fans in the rest of the world to get our fix.

HYPERCOLOR – “100 Hands”

A new song from Richmond, VA’s own HYPERCOLOR (they just released a new EP you can check out here) that also happens to feature two members also in RVA’s Avers who also just released an excellent record that I will be writing many words about when I get around to it.  But more to the point of this song, can I just talk about the coda for a bit (except for a brief mention of that killer guitar solo in one of the instrumental breaks; the guy’s about to fall out his chair in the video and I really, really, really hope that’s the take they used)?  It’s a continuation of the theme the song runs on but with a monstrous drop into a heavy groove; clean-tone guitars snaking through tom hits bouncing from ear to ear.  It wraps the whole song together with a nice little bow before the hammer swings down and smashes the whole thing to pieces at the last second.  I’m also listening to this song on repeat as a Spring downpour pummels the trees outside and this particular mix of sounds and circumstances makes the world seem like a pretty fucking amazing place.