1. Hey guys. I know I haven’t been posting that much the past few weeks, it’s the slow album release schedule. And with moving back in to school and all, it’ll probably be another couple weeks before I start posting reviews again. 

    But September looks like it’s gonna be incredible in terms of new records, so I look forward to returning to regaling you all with my opinions once again at that point. 

    So I’m retiring. But like Brett Favre, I’ll just return not too long after. 

     
     
  2. Electric Würms- Musik, Die Schwer zu Twerk   6.0   

    At the end of 2013, I didn’t think it would at all be difficult to remain a huge Flaming Lips fan for much of the foreseeable future. Why would I get fed up with them? I had seen them play a remarkable, incredibly cathartic concert in May, and they had issued a wonderful single (“Sun Blows Up Today,”) a terrific EP (Peace Sword,) and a great LP (The Terror) in 2013. Even if Wayne Coyne seemed to be going through a protracted midlife crisis, one that he seemed to be in total denial of, he was still the Fearless Freak, one of the main preachers of musical gospel that I turned to in times of strife. 

    Then came Miley Cyrus. And then the Native American headdress controversy. Then the firing of Kliph Scurlock. That coupled with all of the other strange, slightly embarrassing publicity stunts Coyne had undertaken, made supporting the band, specifically Coyne, suddenly quite a bit more difficult. With the firing of Kliph Scurlock, and his support of such brazen cultural appropriation, Coyne seemed to take a stance against the very outsiders he had always so perfectly reassured with his music. Then came the Sgt. Pepper’s cover album with Miley Cyrus and two trillion other collaborators. What was so disheartening was that the band seemed to be resorting to embodying their status as pop culture’s resident psychedelic band. I mean, why the fuck Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Pretty much anyone with at least a vague conception of what rock music is has heard the album a million times, do we really need the Flaming Lips to do a weird, sinister version of it?… 

    Ok, I’m breathing now. In and out… In and out… So what this all leads to is Electric Würms, a Flaming Lips side project that features Coyne (thankfully) taking a back seat to Steven Drozd, and focusing on the bass. Drozd handles the guitar and lead vocals, while psychedelic experimentalists Linear Downfall handle everything else. The title of their first release translates roughly to “music that is hard to twerk to,” a pertinent, but still annoying Miley reference. The title is pertinent in that most of this release is mostly formless jamming, songs that begin and end without making much of a statement. Unfortunately, the krautrock Electric Würms deliver on this is a combination of the genre’s worst elements, monotony, lack of dynamics and lack of melody. While those negatives were morphed into thrilling positives by groups like Kraftwerk and Can, Music Die Schwer zu Twerk features neither of those bands’ relentless ambitions, and mostly features contentment with its own jamming.

    The album’s first half is by far its weakest. “I Could Only See Clouds,” “Futuristic Hallucination” and “The Bat” are almost bland at best, an endless slog at worst. They meander along with a weak pulse and little else, their bleeps, bloops and rhythms forming little more than a krautrock spin on elevator music. While the stronger, more rhythmically inviting “Living” kicks things up a bit, “Transform!!” settles the album back into the directionless jamming that so compromises its first half. Its only the most unlikely of closers, a simplified version of Yes’ “Heart of the Sunrise” that makes Musik, Die Schwer zu Twerk worth listening to at all. In four minutes, the band not only condenses but streamlines the eleven-minute Yes classic into a beautifully understated piece, also bringing some desperately needed melody into the picture. 

    Its quite telling that the highlight of this side project release is a song someone else already wrote. The other five pieces on this record are almost entirely unfinished, barely out of the sketch stage. Maybe Coyne saw it as a chance to give Drozd some much needed time in the spotlight after his constant headline-grabbing. But by seemingly rushing these tracks out, Coyne and Drozd have done themselves a massive disservice. These songs all have small hints of brilliance waiting in the wings, hints of vivid, colorful ideas that could have developed into something worthy of the Flaming Lips’ extraordinary catalog. But as they are, they sound like vaguely intriguing background music, but little else. 

    08/19/14

     
  3. Wire- Document & Eyewitness  (Reissue)   6.8   

    Although Wire normally get thrown under the “post-punk” label, it doesn’t really fit. Pink Flag, 21 angular, confrontational yet tuneful tracks of forward-thinking rock, was already light years ahead of the game when it was released in 1977. At that point, “punk” was just starting to poke it’s head out of the underground, preparing to change the world, but not quite there yet. Wire had already phased out punk’s more simplistic tendencies, and had injected it with a sense of art-school adventurism and political consciousness, while the first wave of normal punk was occurring. On their next two records, 1978’s Chairs Missing and 1979’s 154, the band pushed the genre’s boundaries even farther. Creatively, the band operated on their own planet, independent from punk, rock or pop. They’re the classic example of “post-punk” being thrown onto a band that defied easy explanation or labeling. 

    The last album released during the band’s first lifespan, Document & Eyewitness, is legendary more for its messiness than its accomplishments. The album is built around two extremely lo-fi recordings of different live shows, one in 1979 at the Notre Dame Hall, and another in February 1980 at London’s Electric Ballroom. The shows are an often cringe-inducing, but occasionally fascinating listen. Both shows were packed by an audience full of punks expecting to pogo and mosh to Pink Flag songs. Instead, Wire fed both audiences a set of jarringly experimental, previously unheard material. The only song the band touched on from their first three albums was a searing version of “Heartbeat,” from Chairs Missing

    On the album, the tension between band and audience feeds the often sub-par, poorly recorded material. The band didn’t just stop with the music itself, noisy and unconventional as it was. The trio had a live goose onstage, random onscreen projections and dancing bells. The bad vibes nearly boil over on one of the album’s most incredible moments, a sardonic, half-assed version of the band’s classic “12XU.” A clearly infuriated Colin Newman (bassist/singer/songwriter for the band) attempts to discuss the new material with the audience, only to be drowned out by angry catcalling and requests for “12XU.” Finally, the band launches into a hilariously abbreviated version of the track, further alienating the already restless crowd. 

    The material is as musically wide-ranging as it is inconsistent. The nine-minute “And Then…” is a stunning, heaving, proto-industrial piece that sounds like it came straight from a David Lynch film. “Go Ahead” is a wild piece of electro-punk, while “Midnight Banhof Cafe,” one of the album’s two studio cuts, has a more familiar, tuneful Wire vibe to it. But as fascinating as some of these cuts are, and as intriguing as it often is to hear Wire experiment so unashamedly, most of Document & Eyewitness remains a tough slog. The brutal screaming on “We Meet Under Tables” renders that track virtually unlistenable, while “Piano Tuner” and “Zegk Hoqp” take one decent idea and stretch it so far beyond the breaking point that they are entirely unsalvageable.

    Much of the London show, in the end, is incredibly difficult to get through more than once. This is one of the few times Wire truly over-extended themselves, an album where they took their relentless progression way too far. They were always ahead of the times, but by the time they reached Document & Eyewitness, they themselves seemed to have forgotten exactly what they were trying to do. And, with the impressive re-recording of much of this material on last year’s Change Becomes Us, we’ve all seen the potential the tracks on this record had, making this record little more than a curiosity. But what a fascinatingly flawed curiosity it is. 

    08/15/14

     
  4. The Gaslight Anthem- Get Hurt   6.5   

    On my way to an acquaintance’s house down on the Jersey Shore last summer, I finally got a chance to see the town of Red Bank. Having lived in New Jersey my entire life, I know what the classic beat-up, old, land-that-time-forgot Jersey town looks like. Visit places like Asbury Park, Clifton, or certain areas of Newark, and you’ll see the sort of place any early Gaslight Anthem song inevitably described. Run-down buildings, old classic cars, and a general ruggedness of the people that’s specific to blue-collar New Jersey. The Gaslight Anthem hail not from one of these hard-scrabble towns, but from the aforementioned Red Bank. Imagine my surprise when, finally seeing Red Bank in the flesh, I saw it filled not with abandoned factories, scrapyards and small storefronts, but McMansion-esque homes, immaculately cured lawns and high-end retail stores. In one fail swoop, The ‘59 Sound, the band’s calling card, and a record I loved dearly, seemed not quite as magical as it once was.

    With each subsequent album since '59 Sound, the band has moved into more radio-friendly territory. And Get Hurt shows the band aren’t slowing down in that regard, delivering an album with such a clean production that you could eat off the floor of it. That, coupled with my pseudo-discovery, made every bone in my body lean towards hating and trashing this record before I heard a note of it. And indeed, almost any semblance of grittiness and punk has fled from the band’s sound, leaving only a radio-ready mix of heart on the sleeve confessionals and youthful angst. 

    But, try as I might, I just… can’t hate this record, as much as I honestly want to. In many ways, the band has become a sort of Yankee Kings of Leon, bursting out of the gates with an incredibly fresh, strong sound. Granted, it might have been one that was steeped in rock cliche, but it didn’t matter. The songs were so good that you brushed everything else aside. And like KOL, they have gradually stripped themselves of their rawness in favor of a blinding modern-rock sheen that appeals to the high-school romantic in all of us. But goddammit if they aren’t good at what they do, because on Get Hurt, the Gaslight Anthem drop the last, even remote set of pretenses about their music. They aren’t trying to be tough-ass punks anymore, they aren’t trying to embrace the lo-fi qualities of classic vinyl. They’re just a big ol’ rock band trying to convert as many people as possible to their gospel. And while that task isn’t nearly as commendable as engaging in the wide-eyed hero-worshiping the band used to pull of so well, the Gaslight Anthem make a mainstream-baiting rock record sound dignified. 

    Opener “Stay Vicious” starts the album out with a sluggish riff that desperately tries, and fails, to be heavy and intimidating. But once the band quiets things down, the talent of singer Brian Fallon begins to shine through. His crooning, mixed with the band’s softer moments, make for a dynamic combination, with the band even channeling a bit of the National in the song’s pretty outro. “1,000 Years” once again brings to mind Kings of Leon, with the juxtaposition of gorgeous but incredibly syrupy choruses and hammy lyricism. The title track, a definite ballad, comes close to falling off the tracks with clumsy verses. But its Fallon who once again saves the day with nothing but his charisma. A chorus of “I came to get hurt/Why don’t you do your worst to me?” wouldn’t sound like much coming out of the mouth of most other vocalists, but there’s something about Fallon’s nonchalance, his utter lack of self-consciousness, that sells these words in a big way, and somehow turn the song into a winner. 

    But, as with all Gaslight Anthem records before it, Get Hurt is incredibly top heavy. For every “Rollin and Tumblin’” or “Red Violins,” two slices of classic Gaslight Anthem, there’s an “Underneath the Ground,” an interminable mid-tempo piece or an “Ain’t That A Shame,” a deflated, empty rocker. Fortunately, Fallon pulls the beautiful ballad “Break Your Heart” out of his hat towards the album’s end. The AV Club’s Jason Heller put it best when he said that “Break Your Heart” “might as well be the working title of every one of (Fallon’s) songs.” But again, its Fallon’s conviction that wins the day, making what would have otherwise been a turgid acoustic ballad a memorable moment. 

    If anything, that’s a perfectly apt description for Get Hurt as a whole. It really should’ve slid headfirst into the abyss of radio rock, a horrible, painful death of a record. But this unlikely quartet from Red Bank, New Jersey somehow manages to keep curmudgeons like me coming back for album after album. It’s not because they write the best songs, and certainly it isn’t because they bend the rulebook with each record. It’s because they’re incredibly adept at following pop (and rock)’s greatest mission: to take a person to another place, and to another emotion in their lives. On Get Hurt, they do it in the most formulaic of ways, but they still get the job done. 

    08/12/14

     
  5. The Number Ones- The Number Ones   8.0  

    The Number Ones carry themselves with an odd mix of cheekiness and experienced professionalism. The Dublin power-pop quartet is never short of exuberance on this, their self-titled debut album, but they never lose control of themselves. They’re doe-eyed, but unlike, say, Palma Violets, who exploded out of London with one of the best rock albums of the year in 2013, their music reflects just a bit of the grind of being a power-pop band. Their songs, made for long summer nights at the pub, mulling life quietly over a brew. It’s nothing fancy, just straight-ahead, punky, and heart on the sleeve rock. But if there was ever a formula for this, distinctly Irish-flavored strain of it, the Number Ones have it down better than any band that we’ve seen in quite a long time. 

    The band has been a mainstay of Dublin’s pub scene since their formation a couple years back, but all four members have experience playing with various other combos in the city. As a sort of underground supergroup, they manage to tie all the best elements of the more melodic side of late 70’s UK/Irish punk in a wonderful, sub-20 minute bow. You can hear bits of the Buzzcocks, the Undertones, Elvis Costello and vintage pub-rock in the band’s music, but it’s never a game of spot the influence. These guys sell you this record every step of the way.

    "I Wish I Was Lonely" brushes aside the annoying implications of its title with a perfectly summery riff and two minutes of melodic bliss. "Heartsmash" is even more brief, clocking in at just over a hundred seconds. But again, the elements of these songs are so immaculately placed and put together that the tracks don’t need to be a second longer. 

    Not one for complicated statements, the next two songs are titled simply “Boy” and “Girl.” While the former chugs along with nervous angst, the latter is the closest thing to a ballad on the record, and a beauty at that. And even while the second half doesn’t quite match the amazing rush of the first half, “Sharon Shouldn’t,” “He’s Too Good” and especially closer “Tell Me Why” are overflowing with lyrical wit and nifty hooks. 

    With a band that delves so deeply into a style that has been around for so many years, finding originality can be like a needle in a haystack. But the Number Ones are a classic case of a band that makes their genre sound vital and interesting again. While the quartet stays within the confines of power-pop, they make it sound better than it has in the hands of virtually any other current band. 

    08/08/14

     
  6. Spoon- They Want My Soul   8.4  

    More than anything, Spoon are survivors. They toiled in near-total obscurity for years, braving slim, indifferent audiences, poor reviews and near-universal skepticism. From the start, they seemed to be a square peg in a musical world full of round holes. Britt Daniel was un-ironic from the start, wearing his heart, memories, and his influences, all on his sleeve. They dipped deeply into the back catalog of classic independent music for influence, yet always took themselves seriously as a professional “Rock” band with a capital R. 

    Their eventual, incredible success only came when the band wore their own struggles on their sleeve as well, on top of everything else they had been through. It seemed that only a band who had been on as strange a journey as Spoon could get their break from a two-sided single lampooning their former A&R man during their failed stint at Elektra Records. Like the National, their music is distinctly weathered and battle-scarred. Their view is from the top, but always nervously shifting, never satisfied or comfortable, even with the reassurance of past success. 

    They Want My Soul is Spoon’s eighth record, coming a full two decades into their career. Produced by a two-headed monster of studio wizards (Joe Chiccarelli, who’s worked with just about everyone, and the always-great Dave Fridmann, of Flaming Lips fame,) They Want My Soul is masterful almost every step of the way. Four and a half years since the lo-fi experimentation of Transference, the band sound effortless and infinitely comfortable in their strengths. Britt Daniel, as always, plays quite the character. Filled with attitude, spite and vigor, but constantly hovering towards something approaching contentment, Daniel waves gem after gem on this record. Twenty years in, Spoon are on top of their game here. 

    The album’s singles are a practical gold mine of pop brilliance. “Do You” has a chorus that forces its way into your head, not leaving for the rest of the day. But while it’s being insanely catchy, it establishes itself as a deeply reflective piece, with perfectly placed background vocals and flourishes all around. Fridmann’s touch is ample in the equally brilliant “Inside Out.” A slower, more roomy song, it lets the band stretch out. Fridmann’s production opens things up, giving the song an infinite sense of space, like his best work with the Flaming Lips.

    Even shakier moments, like the tense, uptempo “Rainy Taxi,” and the decidedly At War With the Mystics-era Flaming Lips-esque “Knock Knock Knock” have a sense of reassuring stability. That stability comes in hand again to support opener “Rent I Pay,” which is straight-up, classic Spoon, and the Stonesy “I Just Don’t Understand.” But more so than stability is this album’s capacity for understated, perfect moments. The spunky, emotive solo in the title track and “New York Kiss,” possibly the musical best love letter to the city since the late, great LCD Soundsystem ceased writing them in 2011. For a band that’s been around for twenty years now, it probably isn’t about the big picture anymore; they struggled enough with that early on. Now, its about the little things. Daniel said that the earliest sessions with Chiccarelli were about “figuring out new ways of doing the things we’ve always done.” There couldn’t be a more apt way to describe They Want My Soul, an album that won’t sound too alien to most long-time Spoon fans, but one that will still sound like a revelation after repeated plays. 

    08/06/14

     
  7. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers- Hypnotic Eye   6.6   

    As I’ve grown to care less and less about how cool the music I listen to may or may not be, the guilt in enjoying one of my guiltiest musical pleasures has almost completely subsided. I’ve been a huge Tom Petty fan for years. His songs, however commercial they may be, have always had an attitude and an impregnable air of timelessness. What’s more, his output has remained creatively relevant through the decades. 1999’s Echo still holds its own as one of rock’s better statements on middle age, death and the disintegration of relationships. 2002’s The Last DJ was an informed commentary on the corporatizing of the music business, while 2006’s Highway Companion was as efficient and breezy as anything in Petty’s discography. Looking through the years, it’s hard to find an album where Petty truly took a fully bad step. There were always redeeming qualities and songs to be found in all of his records, a remarkable run of consistency. 

    That was until Mojo, his most recent album. Mojo was by far the least song-centric album Petty has ever released, a record that saw him keeping it simple and letting the Heartbreakers do the rest. Problem is, as technically proficient as the Heartbreakers are, they aren’t exactly the most groundbreaking bunch of musicians in the world. So Mojo, for over an hour, remained content with mostly creating the atmosphere of an average bar band. Never had Tom Petty or the Heartbreakers, usually so independent of anyone but themselves, sounded so out of ideas. It was all about the music, while the songs seemingly came a distant second. In the liner notes was a list of the exact instruments each member used, with a practical scroll of five to six figure vintage guitars used by Petty and Campbell seemingly put there to emphasize the album’s “back to the basics” nostalgia feel. For the first time, the band seemed like a bunch of out of touch old, rich rock stars trying to kick out the jams. As a matter of fact, my feelings about the album were so strong that I found myself wanting desperately to articulate them in some other way than basic frustration, a major motivation in my starting of this blog not too long after. 

    So! What does the group’s new album have to offer? Is it a return to vintage form? Is it another batch of dad-rock jamming? Well, neither really. Some of the stench of Mojo can still be found on Hypnotic Eye, with some of the album’s weaker songs still not rising above your average, B-grade classic rock. But alas, Tom Petty the songwriter has returned! And he’s pissed off again, which is always a good sign. His unmistakable voice, which had been showing signs of wear and tear, is still vital and emotional, spitting or drawling out his spunky lyrics with an unquenchable spirit. 

    Opener “American Dream Plan B” rises above its clunky opening riff to reveal Petty’s always interesting social commentary. He’s no longer the young man spitting in the face of the older generation, he is the older generation. And on this song, he tells us that he knows where we’re coming from, and that he’s angry that we have less opportunity than he did. Its an intriguing bit of role reversal, one that Petty pulls of well. The hard-charging “Red River” re-establishes Petty’s penchant for out of luck character tales a la Springsteen. The swamp rock of “Power Drunk” is a true return to the band’s roots. In Petty’s seedy lyrics and the band’s dirty groove, you can practically feel the stifling heat and humidity of northern Florida, where the band hails from. 

    The brisk “Forgotten Man” brings some of the old anger back as well, with Petty taking the position of the man that time forgot. Meanwhile, “Sins Of My Youth” shows the band in an ever so slightly experimental mode, with guitars sounding straight out of a James Bond film.

    While “Burnt Out Of Town” sounds like a Mojo outtake, and “Full Grown Boy” goes nowhere, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers sound like they’re on a mission once again. No longer are they content with musically retreating, as Petty has once again decided to go on the offensive, the position from which he is the most impressive. And although the band seems to be slipping farther away from their prime, they’re still a crafty bunch. Hypnotic Eye is the sound of a band who isn’t quite ready to give up the gun just yet.

    07/28/14

     
  8. Alvvays- Alvvays   8.3  

    When a band comes packaged with a name as cheeky as Alvvays, it can be easy to make assumptions, or make unfair conclusions about the band’s music before a note of it comes rolling out of your speakers. But on their self-titled debut, the band eliminates skeptics within the album’s first few bars. From the opening bass line of “Adult Diversions,” you can pretty well guesstimate the sonic line this album will travel down. But from that same bass line, you immediately know that it’ll be a joyous ride. This Toronto five-piece channels the same early 60’s AM pop meets 2010’s emotional and philosophical confusion that favorites like Cults, Tennis and She & Him have taken to large audiences. But Alvvays have a much more live, organic feel than either of those bands. Their debut is a revved-up, fizzy gem of an album; one of the best guitar pop records of the year. 

    The aforementioned “Adult Diversion” is a slice of pure, unadulterated summer bliss. The hooks, the pace and those irresistible guitars all make for a mesmerizing concoction. “Archie, Marry Me” is disarming in its simple statement of desired commitment. Lead singer Molly Rankin starts out by explaining Archie’s “discontent for matrimony,” but assures that that minor disagreement has no effect on their seemingly idyllic relationship. Rankin doesn’t really mince words, so the chorus of “hey, hey/marry me Archie” comes as no surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less sweeter. 

    Although nothing on the album really approaches the amazing rush of its first two tracks, there aren’t any blemishes to be found either. On “Next of Kin,” Rankin mourns the loss of a drowned boyfriend, without sounding too upset or downbeat about it. On the wonderful “Party Police,” Rankin tries to convince her companion to think along her lines, saying that they can “find comfort in debauchery.” In a strange way, this record makes me think of what would happen if Parks and Recreation's April Ludgate fronted a band. The songs are blunt, but incredibly endearing, sweet at times but never letting you get just too comfortable. In 32 minutes this quintet crafts a twisty record that can function both as an emotionally cathartic listen, and the perfect centerpiece of any summer playlist. 

    07/25/14

     
  9. John Hiatt- Terms Of My Surrender   6.9   

    You would think, after forty years and almost two dozen records, John Hiatt would be mulling slowing things down a little. But the past six years have been one of the most prolific periods of his career, seeing the release of four new albums. He isn’t a cultural legend, someone who can tour every year and charge hundreds of dollars to aging fans who want to hear the hits. He has always been a musician’s musician, someone who’s songs you’ve probably heard without realizing it. Without ever gaining widespread commercial attention, he’s carved his niche as one of America’s top-tier storytellers, someone who can weave a simple, spotless song out of just about anything. Even though Terms Of My Surrender can be patchy, it shows that Hiatt’s mastery of the craft hasn’t diminished with either his age or his prolific output. He can go from a dark, pessimistic tale of a war veteran to a naughty love song practically in one breath, and make it sound effortless in the process. Terms Of My Surrender is the sound of a veteran who, at album twenty-two, knows exactly where his strengths lie, and how to throw them around his vivacious tales. 

    As with much of his recent material, the majority of this record is settled in a swampy, mid-tempo country-blues groove. Depending on the song it encompasses, this musical setting can either be an asset or an anchor that can drag the album down a little. On the raunchy “Baby’s Gonna Kick,” Hiatt brings the cheese quite shamelessly (“I’m ridin’ downtown to John Lee Hooker/I got my mind set on a slow meat cooker.”) But Hiatt is one of the few that can sell such bluesy/Americana-isms really well, and, coupled with the song’s infectious chorus, makes for a joyful ride. 

    The aching ballad “Marlene,” is the sort of lovelorn country track Hiatt can write in his sleep at this point. “Nobody Knew His Name” is a deceptively dark song that tells the tale of a decimated Vietnam veteran. Hiatt concludes that although the veteran has returned, “the fighting ain’t never done.” He paints a sad tale, one of a lost, directionless soul who’s mental scars will never heal. The album is also sandwiched by strong tracks. Opener “Long Time Comin’” has the taste of bittersweet nostalgia, without dipping too often into easy sentimentality. Closer “Come Back Home” is a wonderful ballad where Hiatt, who spends quite a bit of the record sounding grizzled and remorseless for his actions, finally surrenders and acts his companion to just come back home in the end. 

    Even weak points like the mushy, overly simple “Old People” and the bar-band stomp of “Face Of God” sound sweet in points, and never slow the record down too much. Terms Of My Surrender eases by like a summer breeze, never asking a lot of the listener, but almost always pleasing. Again, its a record made by a remarkably consistent veteran, a guy who deserves a hell of a lot more recognition than has been afforded to him over the years. 

    07/23/14

     
  10. Liam Betson- The Cover of Hunter   8.8 

    The arrival of Titus Andronicus into my musical consciousness, at the age of 14, was incalculably huge. They were a band that made rock music, something I loved but something that also seemed impossibly far away to me, real. The lyrics to songs like “Albert Camus” and “The Battle of Hampton Roads” could not have hit the nail harder on the head, or made more sense. For myself and my fellow, semi-outcast high school buddies, Titus Andronicus served as a mouthpiece of anger, alienation and disenchantment from the seemingly ideal suburbs we were raised in. Although Liam Betson was not their creative brains, that distinction belongs to one Patrick Stickles, he was always in the background, providing texture and immense sonic depth to even the most juvenile Stickles rants.

    Whether he was in the band or not (he’s consistently come and gone since they formed,) his presence was, and has always been, felt. As an original member and one of Stickles’ closest allies, he helped form the explosive/rootsy/epic punk sound that Titus has continued to stick with through their ever-revolving carousel of members. Aside from this, he released three albums as Liam the Younger that were almost as impressive as anything he released with Titus Andronicus. Liam the Younger records were far more hushed affairs than Titus records, but they conveyed the same sense of innate curiosity and dismay about the crumbling nature of American suburbs vis a vis Northern Jersey.

    Revel Hidden Worlds, his last (and best) album as Liam the Younger, served almost as a companion piece to Titus’ masterpiece, The Monitor, which had been released just two months before. Both records were bathed in the influences of the great American songwriters, without wearing them too much on their sleeves. They were both steeped in personal history, drawing healthily from it without sliding too much into a straight narrative. Listening to both records, almost every moment is transcendent, every step perfectly taken. The songs explode at just the right moment, the choruses have just the right amount of anthemic DNA; everything is just the right amount of epic. So when Betson rejoined Titus in early 2012, it was easy to imagine even greater heights, even though the likelihood of Stickles ever topping The Monitor seemed to be almost zero.

    Titus’ 2012 effort, Local Business, was phenomenal in parts, but had the overall feel of a bar band composed of childhood friends, rocking out in their spare time. The production never let the album’s best songs emerge from their somewhat stale shells. The guitars were kept to a minimum, the drums seemed distant. It wasn’t the Titus of old, where hurricanes of guitars and drums would propel Stickles’ songs along with an unstoppable force. As a result, Local Business ended up being a great, but ultimately not classic, record.

    So what does this have to do with The Cover of Hunter? Betson has left Titus once again, and for the first time has released an album under his own name. The change in name belies a seeming uptick in confidence of presentation for Betson. The songs stretch out to seven, even eight minutes, the guitars are loud, his singing more assured. The emotioal settings for his songs are still mostly the same: isolation, sadness, detachment and wonder. But Betson doesn’t feel confined in engaging these emotions anymore. The end result is a truly magnificent record, the sort of endlessly relatable epic Titus fans have been waiting years for.

    The eight-minute “I Can’t Tell If You’re Looking At Me” opens proceedings, and serves as the album’s “More Perfect Union.” Betson sings of tall trees casting shadows on sheets, throwing you into an all-real place, both emotional and physical, almost immediately. Even when the song develops into a stout rocker, it never loses the sense of intimacy it provides you with at first. Its a powerful connection the record forges, one that’s never broken. On “Pocket Knife,” Betson repeats the lyric “what’s possible” to the point where it becomes a sort of mantra. But at the same time, the way he sings it, its hard to tell if he’s saying “what’s possible” or “it’s possible.” That beautiful dichotomy is presented alongside the song’s perfectly measured guitar pop attack. On “Tie My Hands,” Betson assures you that “I’m an actor too,” again establishing an incredible rapport with the listener. Just as he did so well on his Liam the Younger records, Betson brings himself to your level, so you can see just what he sees, almost through his own eyes. In that way, this record is uniquely and beautifully cinematic.

    On “X,” Betson teams up with Stickles once again, and my goodness is it a joy to hear the two shred together again. But before all that, Betson weaves together an impeccably gorgeous song that shows him at his most vulnerable, and his most observant. The song’s build-up, and the subsequent Betson/Stickles guitar playing, is just the cherry on top of it all. “Made From Tin” harkens back the most to Betson’s Liam the Younger days. Not that that’s a bad thing, as Betson is accompanied only by his strumming and some wonderfully placed brass and woodwinds. Even with this album’s more active sound, “Rapture In Heat” is perfectly understated as a closer. A typically lovely song, it flies by. You look up, and the album’s over without any fanfare. Its a fitting end for a record that is both incredibly dynamic and smooth.

    Betson, with his most recent tenure in the now-huge Titus, has developed quite the following himself. And just like all things that lose their best-kept-secret status, I get mixed feelings seeing Betson’s record stream on Pitchfork. But once I get over my ridiculous semi-nostalgia, I see that its incredibly awesome that Betson is finally getting his due. Because his rise, coming on the back of this remarkable album, is far from an empty one.

    07/21/14