Chris Staples – Golden Age [Barsuk]
I usually don’t go for nostalgia or reminiscing. I’m not interested in what could have been or what was, but when I listen to Golden Age, which is a deep reflection of the past, I can’t help but think that, gun to my head, this is the nostalgia album I would want to write. It maintains this “who cares” kind of cynicism throughout. Maybe this was a therapeutical undertaking, but almost every song is met with the attitude that, underneath every significant experience explored, is just a layer of bullshit from all parties involved. This may not sound appealing to some, but to see the past as just some stuff that happened, good and bad, insignificant and fleeting, gives me great hope and appreciation for the present. The music delivers this sentiment with an almost conflicting optimistic tone, like Simon & Garfunkel if they didn’t take themselves so seriously. Golden Age does have its sad moments and more somber tunes, but it maintains a great pop sensibility, delivered with low level electric guitars and basses and acoustic strumming. I’m often reminded of the later work of Nick Lowe, and like Low, Staples has been playing rock n roll for a long time and has worn many hats. It’s apparent that this album was written by a fully realized adult rock n roller. He’s not done with the past, but he’s done with regrets and dwelling on bad decisions.
Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life [Mama Bird]
Andrews’ voice and songs carry more than enough weight, but maybe it takes an album like Honest Life to show this. Her previous efforts, although brilliant in their own way, lived in a more personal space. The guitar was soft and mournful, with a voice holding back a torrent of emotion, seemingly as not to upstage the understated nature of such delicate songs. There was always so much power behind that voice and we were delighted to experience just a hint of it. Although Courtney Marie Andrews’ talent was always apparent, the songs and music were so unique to her own creative voice, that we had no template to relate it to. Honest Life provides a more familiar backdrop and a bigger “stage” to present this talent. Trading in the more intimate “bedroom folk tune” sound for a more classic country vibe, she is now standing next to predecessors like Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt and she demands as much of that stage as anyone else who shares it. This album might as well open with a voice saying “Ladies and Gentleman, Courtney Marie Andrews.” Not because her talent didn’t demand as much attention before, but because now it deserves our attention and it’s delivered in plain language, so there is no excuse to not recognize it.
Exploded View – Exploded View [Sacred Bones]
This trend of dissonant, discordant new music has been well established and defined over the last couple of years. At the forefront of much of this has been the Sacred Bones label. Being one of the more consistent labels in the genre can carry just as much weight as the bands on it. This is evident in their choice to display the logo and label name of the label on the cover of every album, almost as prominently as the band names. Exploded View fits right in to their roster, yet they sound like no other band currently represented by Sacred Bones. Where some of the bands may have a heavier sound or even a more ambient, darker tone, Exploded View pulls from the esoteric well of more DIY, lo-fi no wave and experimental dance punk. In the liner notes, it states that this album was written and recorded live on a Tascam 388 8-track tape recorder, and it carries that kind of energetic spontaneity. However, unlike other live and improvised recordings I’ve heard, the ideas are clear and well developed. Perhaps it’s in the editing or perhaps the band has established a strong form that works well with spontaneous composition, but the lose nature of the music does serve to add more to the uneasiness that makes this style of music a compelling listen…preferably with the lights out.
Sneaks – Gymnastics [Merge]
To borrow an overused cliche that is often joked about, it seems we’ve entered yet another “3rd Wave.” Like Exploded View, Sneaks is revisiting the late 70s/early 80s no wave/dance punk, made popular (but not so popular) by New York bands like Lydia Lunch, Mars, The Contortions and the like. Or perhaps there is some emulation of the 90s/early 2000s irreverence of bands on Kill Rock Stars or K Records. Either way, this is unapologetically derivative, however these movements always had an unfinished, unpolished quality. The music seems to come from a more primitive place, where no thought has even been given to the tone of an instrument. Just plug it in, play what feels right and call it a song. This leaves the “genre” open for use and reuse, much like old folk tunes, with their simple forms and public domain catalog of songs. Like folk, punk belongs to the people. And, like all genres of punk, the music on Gymnastics serves to give a middle finger to an industry that expects concise, well formed ideas. Bands like Sneaks may not be as “in your face” about their music, but the music certainly makes a bold statement, with it’s choppy beats, stream of consciousness lyrics and primitive production. It’s sure to piss off some squares. Ain’t that rock n roll?
B Boys – No Worry No Mind [Captured Tracks]
Since we’ve created a safe place for all things derivative, let’s get into B Boys! B Boys create songs so catchy they would make Ric Ocasek blush, and punk so angular Gang of Four might reconsider coming out of retirement. Upon closer inspection, I noticed something that may or may not have been intentional – the songs on this album alternate between “slow” (roughly 120bpm and below) and fast (160bpm and above), almost as if they recorded one album with the intention of emulating the Cars and then another paying tribute to Buzzcocks, Wire and the aforementioned Gang of Four, only to stagger and combine the two albums into one. This isn’t as disparate as I’m making it sound, though. There is plenty of carry over, making this a fully formed and well realized album. Aside from an enjoyable listen, I see this as an invitation for younger listener to explore some early forms of rock, or just a fun listen for anyone growing tired of the same killer bands you’ve been listening to since the 70s.