2012 Closeout

It has been a very crazy, stressful, happy, sentimental, geeky, tear-filled, music-crammed year. For many reasons, 2012 really put me through the ringer and for much of the year I was more distracted from this blog than I care to admit. A lot of good and bad things happened this year. Looking back now on the last twelve months, all I can say is that I’m one year older, my joints are a little stiffer, perhaps I am a tiny bit wiser, and I am definitely a tad more cynical. But I’m still here. I’m lucky enough to have a day job that pays the bills, a loving husband who puts up with my moods, dear friends, faithful family, and snuggly cats. And I try to appreciate all of it, and give them their much-deserved credit for keeping me sane.

But enough introspection. The year is coming to an end and I’ve got a backlog a mile long! So let’s cut to the chase and fill you in on a few of the amazing albums I’ve been obsessed with this year, but have been just too darn busy to write about until now. Put on your thinking caps and open up your ears, my dear readers, because we’re going to hit them fast and hard and it is definitely going to get loud.

First on my list is an intriguing little synthpop trio from Brooklyn called Class Actress. This group was brand new to me, but turned out to be oh-so-appealing. Elizabeth Harper’s voice and lyrics bring to mind classic pop princesses like Tiffany and Blümchen (two of the artists on my list of guilty pleasures), but she manages to ditch the teeny bopper innocence and bubblegum in favor of sexy lyrics and a jaded world view. And when paired with Mark Richardson and Scott Rosenthal’s synthpop production, it is not surprising that their 2011 album, Rapproacher, is nothing short of top-notch. The bouncy beats, techno flourishes, and New Wave influences actually mask a lyrical content that is much heavier than is apparent at first. Much of the album is spent dealing with the problems of an almost obsessive love affair that is obviously coming to an end. Starting out strong with the upbeat and endearing Keep You, by the end of the track list all you are left with is the sad, echoing, and introspective plea of Let Me In. There is definitely more than meets the eye here, and the result is an album that is hard to put down for long.

Weekend by Class Actress

Next up is the emo-tinged pop-punk outfit known as Motion City Soundtrack. I loved 2005’s Commit This to Memory, but I kinda lost track of these guys until 2012’s release, Go. (Oops!) However, I was downright thrilled when I heard they were releasing a new album this year. Their first single, True Romance, is positively stellar and perfectly evokes all the things I loved about them years ago, yet somehow manages to feel amazingly fresh at the same time. The most likely culprit in this is Justin Pierre’s lyrics, which have changed a lot over the years. What happens to the neurotic emo singer that grows up? They start talking about the mid-life crisis that 30-year-olds across the country seem to be experiencing these days, that’s what. This is probably why I keep coming back to this album. Nostalgia pulled me in, but the way it speaks to my own experiences as an unwilling adult is what keeps me listening. As a whole, the album is a little unbalanced, starting strong but getting darker and more depressing as the track list progresses. The opening songs of Circles and Wires and True Romance start the album out on a high note. But when you hit the contemplative Everyone Will Die at track 5, you start to realize that this is a different kind of album than they would have released eight years ago. And it only gets darker from there, with the second to last song, Happy Anniversary, which is a rather chilling account of a man who believes he is dying. Pretty heavy stuff, I must say, and the mood only partially recovers in the closing track entitled Floating Down the River. Surprisingly, this all feels even more introspective than their previous work and throughout the album there is a keen awareness of the passage of time and the changes caused by it. However, despite the slightly depressing finish, there is some major potential here, which renews my faith in the viability of the post-punk rock alternative genre.

Timelines by Motion City Soundtrack

Moving away from the heavier (read: soul-crushing) stuff, we now come to the amazing riot girl rock of Wild Flag. This indie rock supergroup (if there really is such a thing) is made up of former members of Sleater-Kinney, Helium, and The Minders. The list of members would be familiar to many a hipster, I’m sure, but I found this straight up rock ‘n’ roll band through NPR’s All Songs Considered–confirming that I still like new music, while simultaneously publicizing my advanced age (listening to cassette tapes when dinosaurs roamed the Earth). Rejecting all traces of bubblegum, Wild Flag’s 2011 eponymous album is nothing short of indie rock bliss with a hard-rocking edge that avoids sounding overly heavy or dirty. Devoid of all the usual synthpop and electronica influences I so often gravitate towards, they feel like a real successor to Siouxie Sioux and the Banshees. Tough and intelligent, empowered and full of bravado, with just a touch of vulnerability, the result is downright brilliant. The album is filled with strong guitars, pounding drums, good bass lines, and the clever use of a Hammond organ that completely sidesteps being cheesy. And on some of the songs you can hear that they are just itching to be a jam band, which I’m willing to bet must be the case with their live performances. Clocking in at only 41 minutes, my only real complaint about this album is that it is always over too soon.

Black Tiles by Wild Flag

And last but not least, my absolute top album of 2012 is Master of My Make-Believe by the fantastic Santigold. This is a juggernaut of an album from start to finish. Well-balanced in both genre and mood, she ranges from boastful, arrogant, and tough as nails, to quiet, introspective, and understated. Throughout the track list there are touches of punk rock, synthpop, industrial, electronica, rock, rap, R&B, reggae, and a whole lot more. Hailing from Philadelphia with the title of A&R representative for the likes of Epic Records on her curriculum vitae, the unsinkable Santi White embraces all genres and bends them to her will. Everything, and I mean everything, is fair game. This is evident in every aspect of the album, from the music, to the lyrics, to the album cover, which features her in some of her many and varied guises, including an oily looking man in a suit lounging in a leather chair, two bikini-clad amazon gatekeepers flanking him, and a grinning country noblewoman posing in a massive portrait painting hanging in the background. She is everything and all. Not afraid to genre bend, she moves around and through them freely, both throughout the album and within each song. Displaying a talented voice, she is not afraid to push to the far reaches of her range, and her use of overdubbed vocals in the background is clever. And I have got to say that her collaboration with Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the opening track,Go!, is one of the more brilliant match-ups I’ve seen in a while. I truly adored her first album, and (if you couldn’t already tell) I can’t say enough good things about this second album. I love that she pushes the boundaries of my musical tastes and encourages me to get out of my rut, as all truly worth while artists should. I am anxiously waiting for her next project and just about ready to kick myself because I have not seen her live yet. So what are you waiting for? Hit play now!

The Keepers by Santigold

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‘Cause I’m on fire

From the start, I’ve been planning on doing album reviews on this blog. Now that we’re 9 months in, I think I’ve found the perfect album to kick off this post category. And it is a doozy, let me tell you. So let’s get started.

The band is AWOLNATION (yes, the capitals are intentional). The album is their first full-length record entitled Megalithic Symphony, which was released in March of 2011. The brain-child of Aaron Bruno–who some may know for his previous work with the bands Under the Influence of GiantsHometown Hero, and Insurgence–it is the frenzied attention-deficit product that resulted when Red Bull Studios give him the run of their full-fledged recording studio and literally let him go wild. Yes, I do mean that Red Bull and listening to this album, it is very easy to imagine lots of late night sessions surrounded by and fueled with large doses of the taurine-powered energy drink.

Often classified as an alternative or electro-pop outfit, AWOLNATION pulls from what feels like a thousand genres all at once, including (but not limited to): punk, techno, ’80’s glam metal, garage rock, and old-school blues. Trying to classify this band is as complicated as trying to decode a master spy’s cipher. Not only is each song wildly different from all the others, but Bruno seems to habitually switch genres within the songs themselves. Throughout the album, his vocal and musical choices invoke a vast array of varied artists, among them LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Mika, George Michael, and even a little bit of Ronnie James Dio. In my research on the band, some have compared Bruno to Beck in his amazing mastery of the poetic and his chameleon-like ability to jump genres. But Bruno and his band mates take it to a whole new level with their frenetic beats, unexpected pauses, and the lyrics. Oh, the lyrics! Ranging from sweet, to inspirational, to cynical, and all the way to mildly disturbing. This is one album that constantly keeps you guessing and 9 times out of 10, you’re wrong.

But in all the ADHD mayhem, there is a truly wonderful and somehow strangely cohesive sound here. And it grows on you. The first time I listened to this album, I kept asking myself (quite loudly, I might add), “What the hell is this?!?!” It was such a high energy assault to my senses that it was almost too much for my poor brain to take in. But with every song and every moment of this confused listening-madness, a wide grin never left my face. I knew I’d have to give my head time to cool and listen to it again. Little did I know that I’d be compelled to listen to it again and again… and again.

To truly appreciate the full experience, you really do need to listen to the whole album. But for the sake of trying to keep this from becoming a novel, I’m going to focus on only a few of the songs.

First up is a track called Soul Wars. This is the perfect example of a song that combines two starkly disparate genres-in this case the electro-pop version of techno that is so popular these days and ’80s hair metal-into a sometimes jarring yet ultimately satisfying composition. It also introduces the listener to the hyper-active energy that can be found throughout the album. The best that YouTube could serve up is a lyric-version of the song, there being no official video and only live versions with hideous sound quality. But the upside is that the featured visuals are the Salvador Dali-like liner art, which only serve to enhance the novelty of the song. Plus as an added bonus, you’ll find out where the name of this post came from. Come on click the play icon. You know you’re curious.

To show you the astounding range this album serves up, I present to you my second highlighted song: People. Taking things down a notch, it lacks the heavy sense of power and high-speed  urgency that Soul Wars features. But what it lacks in the manic, it more than makes up for in the positive pop punch. I especially love the philosophical tint to the opening monologue for the song in which Bruno grabs your attention with the words, “Thank you for listening again/Or for the first time/Or for the last time that we share this moment/And I am grateful for this.” Sadly, this little speech is cut in half on the lovely live performance I dug up. But kudos to Red Bull Records for posting some really high quality live performances online.

The first single off the album is Sail, which has one of the most eerily creepy videos I’ve seen a while. The song is a strange mix of low-key electronic flourishes and Bruno’s voice howling like a gruff old bluesman. I actually didn’t like this song the first few times I heard it. Maybe it is an acquired taste, because it slowly won me over. It is probably the calmest song on the whole album, which is ironic because it also features the most screaming.  The shadowy video only adds to the unsettling atmosphere of the song and introduces the idea of alien abduction, something that makes an appearance in several of the songs.

Last to be featured is the second and current single called Not Your Fault. This is the song that made me buy the album, mainly because it sounded so different from Sail. You wouldn’t even know it was the same band until a full minute in when Bruno drops his smooth vocal manner for the shriek-like sound he uses in the first single. The gap between the two songs was so great that I was suddenly intrigued enough to put my money down on the record store counter. The video is a hilarious claymation romp that was obviously influenced by the high jinks of late night on Cartoon Network and the video for Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer. The claymation violence paired with the still cheerful good-humor of the video is a great distraction from the lyrics, which bring to mind the suicide notes left behind after murder/suicides. I am completely serious here. Watch the video twice! Once for the visuals and once for the chorus. It is a real trip.

Now  if you haven’t guessed by now, I love this album. I have been completely taken in and I give it a hearty two thumbs up. And if I haven’t peaked your interest in the music of AWOLNATION by now, then I wash my hands of you!