1. 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

     
  2. 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

     
  3. 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

     

  4. Swallow My Pride: A Requiem For the Ramones

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    A couple days ago I awoke to the news that Tommy Ramone, the last of the original lineup of the Ramones, had passed away from cancer. It’s doubly tragic that none of the original band lived to be 65, with Joey failing to even reach 50. But in some ways, the band’s early deaths are sadly fitting. The Ramones were never meant to make it. They were four instrumentally inept, long-haired weirdos from Queens trying to convince everyone that they were as good as the Beach Boys. All they ever wanted was to be rock stars, the kind that they had grown up with, the kind that didn’t exist anymore. And in that they failed miserably.

    They were, in some ways, terrible. But in a lot of other ways they were the greatest band in the world. With one swing they opened the door for bands that eschewed classic rock tropes like soloing, and focused on songs rather than chops. There was never a high concept with the Ramones. In fact, their high concept was that they lacked one entirely. They wrote simple pop songs from their own, very unique, perspective and played them as fast and loud as they could. They made rock real and interesting again. Songs like “Judy Is A Punk,” “Swallow My Pride,” “Cretin Hop,” and “Rockaway Beach” are entirely timeless, and of their own place in music. 

    It was Tommy who moved Joey to the position of frontman, and Tommy who wrote “Blitzkrieg Bop,” the Ramones’ mission statement. While Tommy was only the band’s drummer for their first three albums, those records are three of the greatest rock albums ever made. 

    Its hard to believe that all four of the originals are gone now, but in their time, they made an indelible mark. As it was for millions of others, my first experience with the Ramones as a kid was a revelation, one that opened the dam for the rest of punk to come through our eager minds. And if for nothing else, the Ramones deserve an unchallenged place in history for that. But taken alone, they were incredible, and for certain, there will never be another band like them.

    07/15/14

     
  5. Toasted Plastic- Toasted Plastic (EP) 8.5

    Few experiences have been more surreal for me than seeing the stream of Toasted Plastic’s “Shevell” on the front page of Stereogum. I’ve known these guys since middle school, and to see their new track listed between new music from Ryan Adams and Lil’ Wayne was almost incomprehensible. I say this every time I review anything new from them, but to watch them grow from a jokey duo writing songs about planets and Rice Crispy Treats in the eighth grade to a searing punk band has been nothing short of astonishing. I could go on and on about how our shared roots in Ridgewood, New Jersey, attending the same shows, coming of age to the same music, gives me a special connection to this trio, but I won’t. You don’t need that connection, or to have geographical and personal ties to this music’s origins, to know this EP really slays.

    These guys haven’t really changed the formula much since their last full-length, last year’s excellent June Highs. But they’ve never needed to. Once they found their sound a few years ago, these guys made every new song sound like a revelation. Their new EP clocks in at just over eleven minutes, but feels shorter, with every song making its statement quickly and effectively before making way for the next. Opener “Shevell” is one of the band’s finest moments to date. Combining their inherent ear for melodies with the constant tempo changes of math-rock, “Shevell” is a prime example of the sort of pop-punk/emo/math hybrid sound that makes the band so endearing. “Haunted” is bookended by frenzied sections that border on hardcore, but lying in the middle is a gorgeous mid-tempo section that finds Sam Kendrick and Cameron Konner’s voices working flawlessly together. “Excellence In Motion” is more of a slow burner, while “Jemco” is a wonderful closer that really sows the EP together neatly.

    I was a tad too young to experience Ridgewood’s Real Estate rise to international fame, and still a couple years behind the wave of bands that followed them. Toasted Plastic are from my year, and have left an incredible impression on the town’s music scene in their wake. Although at one point it seemed crazy to think that they would climb the same ladder as Ridgewood’s other famed groups, the idea isn’t at all farfetched anymore. As long as they keep making records that are this tight, this catchy and this powerful, there’s no limit to where these guys will go. Along the way, they’ve been making me quite proud to be from Ridgewood, a sentiment I have rarely found myself indulging in.

    07/13/14

     
  6. Caustic Window (Aphex Twin)- Caustic Window   7.0

    More so than even in classic rock, many of electronic music’s most famous artists have become legendary for their crypticness, and unpredictability. After reshaping electronic music, and pop music in general, during the 1990’s, Aphex Twin (real name Richard D. James) has retreated entirely from releasing music. His last album as Aphex Twin came all the way back in 2001. And that record, Drukqs, was an enigma unto itself. Comprising of hard-line drum and bass songs sat next to Erik Satie-esque piano pieces, it polarized James’ fans, most of whom sought refuge from their disappointment in the idea that James would surely have some more head-spinning material waiting in the wings. 

    But new Aphex Twin material never came, and the wide-open dam of creativity that had been flowing from James for ten years suddenly came to a screeching halt. Its in this context that Caustic Window now sees the light of day. James recorded Caustic Window back in 1994, the same year as his masterful Selected Ambient Works Volume II was released. Five test pressings of Caustic Window were produced, with all five of them staying in the hands of James and Grant Wilson-Claridge, the co-owner of James’ Rephlex Records label. Then suddenly, earlier this year, one of the five copies surfaced on Discogs. With James having not released any new material whatsoever in a decade, (his last confirmed release of any kind was a string of tracks under his Analord pseudonym in 2005) the reaction from the electronic music community was predictably intense. In fact, the intensity of interest is the only reason we’ve been able to listen to the album at all. The members of the We Are the Music Makers electronic music forum persuaded James and Rephlex Records to distribute 4,000 ultra high-quality digital copies of the album to those who contributed to a Kickstarter campaign dedicated to unveiling the album. Once the 4,000 copies were sent out, the album was inevitably leaked to the world, while the physical copy on Discogs was bought by the founder of Minecraft for the bargain price of $46,300. 

    With all of the hype and expectation surrounding such a sought-after commodity, it can be hard to listen to Caustic Window with an objective ear. The objective ear reveals an album that has its moments, but understandably has gathered dust for twenty years. James intended for it to be released under his Caustic Window pseudonym, a name which he had used for tracks that fell more under the techno bracket than the ambient one which had begun to make him famous. As I mentioned before, this was also the time in which James was prepping Selected Ambient Works Volume II, arguably the zenith of his discography. That record, with its delicate, spare beauty, stands in marked contrast to the restless, almost lo-fi Caustic Window. And indeed, you won’t find the holy grail in Caustic Window; much of it seems undeveloped and unfinished. But those tracks that do seem fully formed offer a fascinating glimpse into just how creative James was during this incredible period. 

    The high points of Caustic Window are fairly easy to pick out. “Mumbly” showcases James’ mastery of the art of sampling. With a hard-charging electro background, James throws in samples of what sounds like an old Looney Tunes cartoon. Its the perfect juxtaposition of the past and the future, and how they can collide in a piece of music. Other highlights include the lengthy “101 Rainbows (Ambient Mix),” a track that really stretches itself out, in contrast to the often-claustrophobic noises that populate the record. But more often, James is more concerned with the harder edges of his music on this record. “Phlaps” is distorted and relentless, while “Cunt” dives headfirst into acid house. James redefined electronic music across the board, including house. But it was his softer side that changed the game the most, and on Caustic Window that side doesn’t appear too often, a trait that likely relegated this record to the benches for twenty years. 

    While Caustic Window may not be worth say, almost $50,000, it’s definitely a document worth examining. Less a giant leap for James, it marks where he stood between the giant leaps marked by the aforementioned Ambient Works II and its predecessor, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. James was so creative during this period that he had the time to release those two masterworks, record this, and release a boxful of EP’s and 12“‘s under all sorts of names between 1991 and 1994. Inevitably, it isn’t all gold, but considering just how much material James was producing at the time, Caustic Window is a remarkably focused and consistent record. 

    07/03/14

     
  7. Mark Kozelek- Live At Biko   8.4   

    There are a couple things that make Mark Kozelek’s sixth album as Sun Kil Moon, Benji, this year’s (so far) best by a mile. For one is its truly stunning honesty and intimacy. While the unbelievably personal aspect of Kozelek’s music has been present since literally the opening track on his first release (as Red House Painters), when the then 23 year-old Kozelek mournfully intoned “and 24 keeps breathing in my face,” it is never more apparent than on Benji. There seems to be no separation from the event to Kozelek’s retelling of it. And in those entirely unfiltered accounts Kozelek captures the very essence of how we perceive events and time passing in our lives. In Kozelek’s retelling of the shocking death of his second cousin, his childhood as a reluctant, regretful bully, and the complex admiration and love he holds for his parents, we can see ourselves, and our own reflection. And in the middle of it all sits Kozelek, both knowing and wary of his own talents, occasionally ill at ease with the feverish devotion his confessional music inspires. 

    This is far from the first live album Kozelek has issued under his own name. He issues one practically every year as a matter of fact. But this is the first to contain live recordings of Benji tracks. Some of the songs make the transition to a hushed, solo concert performance better than others, but they are surrounded by other recent entires in Kozelek’s catalog. As always, Kozelek’s stage banter is full of weariness, apathy and disinterest. But his gratitude remains there, and beneath the singer’s frosty exterior lies a gratitude that, when it comes through in his performances, make this a magical live album.

    The opener, “Gustavo,” from Kozelek’s recent collaboration with Jimmy Lavalle, tells an almost tragic story, but one that only partly centers around Kozelek. Kozelek sings of an illegal immigrant that he hired to finish the old house he had just bought. The money Kozelek pays him goes to “hookers & casinos,” until one day he disappears. Later, he calls from the other side of the border, asking for a couple thousand dollars, to which Kozelek responds with a negative. His response is innately human, he feels uneasy with his decision, knowing Gustavo’s unreliability but saddened by the role he played in Gustavo’s likely downfall. Again, Kozelek makes you look inside yourself and wonder what you would have done in the same situation. As an opening performance, its simply exquisite. 

    A handful of Benji songs get the solo acoustic treatment next. “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same” is made somehow even more stunning in live form, with Kozelek’s fingerpicking reverberating through the quiet concert hall. Each note seems to interact with the winding vignettes of the piece, giving it an incredibly vivid quality. “Dogs,” one of Benji's only non-transcendental moments, is made into a far more powerful, dirge-like piece. But, Kozelek actually gives up halfway through a slightly chugging “I Love My Dad,” remarking to the audience that “this doesn't work in Italy.” “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” misses Steve Shelley's drumming in live performance, with its rising intensity being provided solely by Kozelek's acoustic. “Carissa” is an interesting outlier. One of Benji's most jaw-dropping moments, Kozelek changes the tune and riff slightly, making it almost a major-key piece. Despite its change in tone, it really works, providing another angle on Kozelek's agonizing tale of loss, guilt and family. 

    Even with hiccups like a sleepy version of “Alesund,” and a performance of “Sunshine In Chicago,” one of Kozelek’s weakest songs as Sun Kil Moon, its hard to find a lot of faults here, even with Live At Biko's lengthy runtime. Non-Sun Kil Moon tracks, like “Tavoris Cloud” (from last year's Kozelek/Desertshore collaboration) and “Ceiling Gazing” (from the aforementioned Kozelek/Lavalle collab) are among the album's best performances. Its clear that Kozelek relishes the chance to give this lower-profile material a higher pedestal to stand on, and gives those songs an extra jolt. 

    Kozelek is a mercurial type of musician, one who’s entirely unpredictable and occasionally difficult to stomach. But, as I’ve figured out, the rewards of sticking with him can be absolutely extraordinary. As a songwriter, he’s rivaled by few in music today. The songs on Benji are jaw-dropping on first listen, and only grow with you as you experience more. It’s something that applies to Kozelek’s catalog of music as a whole. His music is never static, it moves and grows with you. Live At Biko, as a document,demonstrates just how alive his music really is. 

    06/30/14

     
  8. Alex G- DSU   8.3  

    Bedroom pop has always tended to bring out my more long-winded side. When writing about my favorites of the genre, like Liam the Younger (now Liam Betson), Mutual Benefit or Radiator Hospital, I do tend to go on and on and on about authenticity this and rawness that. And it’s all true! When music comes out of that personal a space, presented to you with little editing and few fixes, it just is a hell of a lot more affecting. But lest I go into another mushy exercise in word-vomit, I’ll get to the point. 

    Alex Giannascoli is a Temple University student who’s been making homespun guitar-pop records for a couple of years now. DSU is his first major release, coming out on Brooklyn’s Orchid Tapes label. And all DSU demonstrates really, is a mastery of the distillation of influences. Giannascoli channels all sorts of guitar/indie rock into this little LP, crafting a low-key record that is simultaneously intrinsically familiar and incredibly fresh. It doesn’t have a whole lot of ambition, nor does it need to. It’s one of those records that’s just perfect the way it is, not leaving you wishing it had any different qualities. 

    The album opens with a brief sound collage, but then settles into the perfection of “After Ur Gone.” This is an opening piece of pop that would’ve made Alex Chilton proud, winning you over with a single, bone-simple riff and little in the way of lyrics. The riff to “Serpent Is Lord” isn’t much more complicated, but again Giannascoli knows exactly where to place it in the song. Every piece of his puzzle fits perfectly together. The humble “Harvey” and the pixel-y “Rejoyce” are two of the most affable songs you’ll ever hear, while “Skipper” does an incredible amount with a couple layers of guitars and vocals. 

    Even in its lesser moments, of which there are very few, DSU never really puts a foot wrong. Its understated music of the highest degree. Like Jordan Lee of Mutual Benefit, Giannascoli just needs some swirling ambience and a guitar to make something incredibly special. His music is personal enough to hit home any time it needs to, but well-rounded and strong enough to be adaptable. It can be whatever sort of emotional injection you want it to be, and at the end of the day, it’ll still be a fantastic record.

    06/24/14

     
  9. The Felice Brothers- Favorite Waitress   5.9

    You could say the Felice Brothers were the first band I ever saw live. At the 2008 All Points West Festival (may it rest in peace) in Jersey City, the ramshackle New York-based folk group were joyously occupying the festival’s distant third stage. Aged thirteen, I sat back and watched for twenty minutes as the band tore through numbers like “Frankie’s Gun” and “Rockefeller Druglaw Blues.” Back then, the terms “Americana” and even “folk” didn’t mean much to me; I just saw a bunch of dudes who loved old-timey music. But even through my wall of adolescent ignorance, the Felice Brothers were able to strike a chord. Their music was incredibly affable, stuff you would want to listen to at a barbecue as the sun set on a long summer day. It recalled broken-down American towns filled with unique, well-meaning and simple characters. Even after Radiohead changed my life with their headlining performance later that night, the Felice Brothers stuck in my mind. 

    The Felice Brother’s music isn’t the most diverse in the world. Their influences are pretty set in stone: The Band, late 60’s-early 70’s Dylan, The Band, Pete Seeger, did I mention the Band yet? That coupled with the band’s tendency to not hold back on the length of their full-lengths, make their full albums occasionally tedious affairs. Favorite Waitress is no different in that way. Although it comes out strong with two irresistible early songs, it soon sinks into cliche after cliche. At least the band avoids the experimentation that marked Celebration, Florida, the band’s most recent full-length. For, even though it can be a bit of a slog at times, Favorite Waitress is a hell of a lot of fun at its peaks. 

    For Favorite Waitress, the Felice Brothers left their usual Woodstock, New York confines for Omaha, Nebraska. The change in scenery does little to change the band’s musical inclinations. They still try to sound like a group of guys who get together every summer Sunday on one of their porches and just jam. Sometimes that attempt at authenticity comes off as genuine, on the album’s more produced songs, it sounds quite forced. Opener “Bird On Broken Wing” (dedicated to Seeger) is one of the more genuine articles. It doesn’t sound too far from something that would’ve come up in Inside Llewyn Davis, or a latter-day Alan Lomax recording. 

    The album’s best moments are its most wild ones though. “Cherry Licorice” is like country-fied garage-rock, with a wonderful riff, whimsical lyrics and a simple chorus. “Lion” opens up like a Texas barn-dance piece. But the overt country-ness disguises a gorgeous, sophisticated melody. “Meadow of a Dream” doesn’t do much to hide its ambition, or its overt Springsteen influence (more on that in a bit) but it has a strong charm non-withstanding. 

    But things begin to slide fairly rapidly on “Saturday Night.” Lyrics like “I’m the new Elvis!” and, most offensively “I ain’t the Boss, but I’m his illegitimate son/cause baby I was born to run” go over like nails on a chalkboard. “Constituents” carries itself with a suffocating air of self-importance, while “Hawthorne” incorporates “Baba Black Sheep” into its chorus. 

    But, these guys have never really been album artists, so it’s not all that surprising. Late-album strengths like the mournful “Chinatown” and the rollicking “Katie Cruel” make the album’s slide more easy to bare, and serve to remind you of what the Felice Brothers are good at. And indeed, that’s what’s most refreshing about Favorite Waitress. It’s an album that reminds you of this likable group of folkies from Woodstock, a band that when they want to can write a hell of a song. And although the best ones here are a bit of a needle in a haystack, its worth the look to find them.

    06/22/14

     
  10. The Antlers- Familiars   8.2

    The Antlers never used to be ones for subtle gestures. Their breakthrough album was called Hospice, and told a tale of mental disintegration through the eyes of a romance between a healthy hospice worker and a terminally ill patient. On their last album, Burst Apart, lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Peter Silberman sang songs with titles like “I Don’t Want Love” and “Putting the Dog To Sleep.” It wasn’t music for the content in either case. On both albums, Silberman took the listener through his jumbled, conflicted state of mind, vividly chronicling the emotional roller coaster of relationships. With his soaring falsetto, Silberman crafted a direct, tortured artistic persona that he has recently tried to distance himself from as much as humanely possible. So what are the Antlers supposed to do when the center of who they are as a band has shifted to such a degree? The obvious answer is to evolve. And that they have done, to incredible effect. 

    The transformation began two years ago, on the band’s Undersea EP. Undersea was a titanic shift from the previous year’s full-length, Burst Apart. Where Burst Apart was lean and direct, Undersea was vague and woozy, capturing its title perfectly in its sound. The EP’s highlight was the nine-minute “Endless Ladder,” a gorgeous, waltz-like piece of rock that touched on, but never embodied, ambience and drones. Silberman simply sang of climbing higher, climbing higher on an endless ladder. His thinly veiled, desperate character sketches of the past had dissipated into a brewing storm of confused contentment. What it showed was a band that refuses to sit still even for a second, making leaps and bounds, rather than steps. 

    Familiars takes the lengthy excursions of Undersea a giant step forward. With only one of its nine tracks clocking in at under five minutes (and only barely,) this is simultaneously the band’s most understated and ambitious album. Its songs need time to stretch themselves out before making their big statements, and the album itself needs to familiarize itself with you before its greatness sinks in. Indeed, during my first spin of this record, I found myself disparaging it as a self-indulgent exercise in sonic monotony, an album like Sigur Ros’ Valtari; pretty, but lifeless. But this was because the Antlers of the past grabbed you by the collar on first listen. They told you of a doomed couple, or a disintegrating relationship (or a disintegrating mind) with vivid imagery, and amazing sounds to go along with it. But now, Silberman has seemingly sorted his shit out. During the beautiful “Intruders,” he impatiently intones “well this is my house/so fuck your doubts and your cute battalion/cause I’m steady.” Musically, there is a previously unheard confidence as well. The trio are willing to stretch songs out to seven-plus minutes routinely, and are not afraid to thrown in a stand up bass here, or more of Darby Cicci’s trumpet playing than ever before. So even though Familiars doesn’t contain an “Atrophy” or an “I Don’t Want Love,” its a stunning listen. The band isn’t playing a hit or miss game anymore, its all about one cohesive idea.  

    Even with repeated listens, Familiars does take a bit of time to get its engines running full tilt. Opener “Palace” has its moments, Cicci’s mournful trumpet is as always an immaculate touch, but it skirts the boundaries of melodrama, something that’s always been an issue with these guys. The seven-minute “Doppelgänger” also fails to get the album going. But, this lackluster opening is sorta to be expected from an album that is so down-tempo: it’s just getting itself ready.

    "Hotel" kicks off the record’s sterling middle section. Its more funky than anything the Antlers have previously done, with nifty, fluid playing from all three members. The aforementioned "Intruders" at first offers itself up as the stereotypical unsuccessful-romantic Silberman ballad, but reveals the singer to have changed. Its different lyrical perspective gives the band’s changed attack added support. "Director" casts Silberman as the observer, rather than the protagonist. As he describes watching turmoil, he concludes that he’s just a "director watching you rehearse." Again, the change in perspective does the mellow, confident music a world of good. 

    "Parade" begins with an electronic whirring that sounds eerily similar to a piece of music used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, immediately eliciting a feeling of curious exploration. But even though its about a parade, something that ostensibly elicits that same feeling, Silberman is still there to call out bullshit. “Right when the blizzard ends, they throw a fucking huge parade/A great excuse for celebration of the mess they’ve made.” On the Antlers’ earliest releases, Silberman was left in awe of spectacles like, well, parades, and for him to change things up to that degree is quite jarring. On “Refuge,” the album’s closer, Silberman avoids the pit of despair he fell into on Burst Apart's closer, “Putting the Dog To Sleep.” Instead, he saves the album's most concise, short and perhaps even accessible, track for last. 

    Familiars may not be the best Antlers record. But, like Arcade Fire, and the fact that they keep morphing and making amazing records despite the fact that they’ll likely never top Funeral, the Antlers continue to move impressively. Although he’s still far from happy, Peter Silberman sounds more content and sure-footed than he ever has before. And, with his newfound confidence, its fascinating to think where he might take the Antlers next. But for now we can enjoy Familiars for what it is, a rock-solid statement of change and new ideas. 

    06/19/14