For the past few years, Oakland’s Dick Stusso has been writing dark, apprehensive quasi-country scenarios, dwelling on the less savory aspects of life on earth. He delivers his messages with a lo-fi, homemade approach that makes them sound like notes from a soul finely balanced on the edge of despair. Despite the implied salvation in the title, In Heaven continues to address the numbing overstimulation of present-day existence with a tone somewhere between a grimace and a smirk.
The plodding tempos, muffled background vocals and Stusso’s rumbling baritone give laments like “Terror Management,” “Bullshit Century, Part 1” and “Phasing Out” a bleak, hopeless authenticity. The slow lumbering beat of “Modern Music” actually harks back to the sound of an early R&B hit, with shrieks of spaghetti-Western guitar and primal bluesy piano supporting a morose lyric that declaims, “Modern life is a palace built on endless suffering.”
It’s difficult to really miss a band like the Get Up Kids. Sure, it’s been seven years since the band put out its last LP—extremely underrated fuzz-rock set There Are Rules—but at this point the fivesome has made its indelible mark. You can hear the Kids all over the place in modern emo, From the dusty, sincere wail of acts like awakebutstillinbed to the detailed and direct pop of artists like Oso Oso, the many sides of the Get Up Kids are with us even when the band is not.
But there’s no reason a band with this kind of legacy in this little niche can’t come back and sound natural as ever. Kicker, the new four-song EP from the band, is a quick little jumpstart for the group, and it has a lot to give in just 13 minutes. Opener “Maybe” is like candy for anyone who’s ever loved this genre—a loud, pounding anthem with all the biting spirit of the band’s best work. “Better This Way” and “I’m Sorry” are pure fun to fill out the center of the EP while setting us up for the crowning jewel of the collection: “My Own Reflection.” This song so easily encapsulates everything that has always been great about the Get Up Kids, a reminder of why so many people have connected with this band over its long career. Matt Pryor sings as the song opens, “It’s hard enough to stay awake/Let alone to motivate/But we do this everyday.” For all the discontent, the angst, the anxiety of everyday life, this band has always been excellent at living through the stomach knots and aimless longing to turn the Kids into something that feels damn good to sing along to. And when that loud, vibrant synth line comes in to take center stage, the kind of sound you turn up far too loud on a lonely, dark drive because you just want to pull it close as you can, it’s hard to deny that the band is still as good at this as it ever was.
There’s a déjà-vu sensation that comes when listening to these songs. That’s fine—these songs are not anything drastically new for the Get Up Kids. The band has made plenty of trips to new sounds and textures over the years, and they’ve all been rewarding. But Kicker doesn’t want to go anywhere new really; it just sounds like it wants to come home. And no matter where else they may go on this new run, it sure was nice to have the Get Up Kids touch base in a sound as comfortable as the one that Kicker provides.
Marisa Anderson’s devotions to music, social transformation and good old-fashioned adventuring have kept her on the road for a fair bit of her life. She knows all about packing light and packing smart, and a similar sensibility infuses her music. Cloud Corner, her first recording for Thrill Jockey, is a studio production that layers her electric guitar with Wurlitzer piano, Andean charango and Mexican requinto jarocho. But every tune on it can be boiled down to a solo performance, and each comes with a story attached.
In concert, those stories draw you into her life and those of her subjects, but on record, the music communicates just fine with nary a word. Anderson’s tunes are rooted in American folk, blues and gospel, and charged with the life and death struggles that regular folks have faced since before this country was a nation. They give comfort, express defiance and set you pleasantly adrift in an imaginary sea of flowing melody and liquid reverb.
Pre-release hype on the 12th full-length slab from these Boston kings of garage/R&B claimed it to be under the hypnotic spell of Sun Ra’s cosmic free jazz. It’s difficult to tell through the hardly-lo-fi-but-not-quite-high-fidelity sonics of Cincinnati’s clearly analog Ultra Suede Studios. Full, raucous and live-in-a-room—and definitely swelling under tube and tape compression until it explodes—the dozen-song Soul Flowers Of Titan is the sound of hard-roots vets displaying muscular expertise.
The LP, the follow-up to 2015’s Under The Savage Sky, is bolstered by new Savage Brian Olive’s thick, warm Hammond B3. But the focus remains square on Barrence Whitfield’s unhinged vocals and the screaming blues guitar and slashing power chords of Beantown punk legend Peter Greenberg (DMZ, Lyres), who also served as Soul Flowers Of Titan’s producer. The material runs the gamut from Texas blues shuffles (“Slowly Losing My Mind,” “Tall, Black And Bitter,” “Let’s Go To Mars”) to Stax-y soul stomps (“Pain,” “Tingling,” “Sunshine Don’t Make The Sun”) to street-corner doo wop (“I’ll Be Home Someday”). Retro futurists like JD McPherson should definitely take notes.
Oakland-based vocalist/ukuleleist Merrill Garbus is the most visionary white artist of the last decade, and such singular, hooky and uncomfortable documents as the abrasive wonder of 2009’s BiRd-BrAiNs, 2011’s funkily disturbing w h o k i l l and 2014’s intersectionally playful Nikki Nack speak (loudly) for themselves. Fourth album I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life is merely very good. Tired of having her political message lost in universes of sound junk and lyrical abstractions, she streamlines both here into danceable nuggets of unmistakable self-criticism.
“All I know is white centrality,” she fears on best-in-show lead single “ABC 123,” while the buzzing, Cibo Matto-esque “Colonizer” chides a version of herself that spoke too familiarly of Kenyan men. But aside from exceptions like the bass-line-and-snare-hooked “Look At Your Hands” and eerily harmonized dirge “Home,” these are some of the least catchy tunes in her catalogue, as well as the least decorous. Like Eminem on Revival, of all things, she’s too self-conscious at her most conscientious to find her ease with the material.
You can be forgiven for not keeping up with Ty Segall’s myriad releases (at minimum an album a year), but you could do worse than use Freedom’s Goblin as your chance to catch up. It’s a 19-track double LP of Segall’s many moods, from acoustic love songs to extended guitar jams to, most often, fuzzed-out rock.
Like the similarly prolific Bob Pollard, Segall draws on classic lexicons—in his case, the deep vocabulary of stoner metal, glam and scuzzy garage rock—but he’s eager to subvert expectations, too. He’ll add horns as sweeteners, or take a ’70s disco track (Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s A Winner”) and railroad it into a grand-funk stomp. Even at its most abrasive or cartoonishly violent, Freedom’s Goblin has hooks and strong songwriting, and the quality is more consistent than Segall’s norm. Of course, Segall’s not really interested in consistency or norms. He likes his rock ’n’ roll damaged and weird.
This superstar bluegrass-flavored trio features former Nickel Creek fiddler/guitarist Sara Watkins, Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter/guitarist Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan (known for her stunning vocal work with Crooked Still and Sometymes Why). Debut See You Around shows off the band’s celestial harmonies, instrumental prowess and impressive songwriting with 11 originals and unrecorded Gillian Welch gem “Hundred Miles.”
The women alternate lead vocals throughout the album, but when their voices blend, moving from two-part to three-part harmonies, the music really takes off. There’s a hint of ’50s R&B on “Ryland (Under The Apple Tree)” with subtle, twangy electric guitar supporting the trio’s smooth vocal interplay. “Close It Down” is an old-fashion country cheating song, given a new spin by the trio’s arch vocals as they brush aside the advances of a smug Lothario. “Hundred Miles” wraps things up with a mostly a cappella rendition of this chilling, traditional-sounding tune.
Ministry headman Al Jourgensen has been outspoken about his repulsion for the current administration and its disregard for truth, justice, human rights, science and common decency. He amplifies those concerns on AmeriKKKant, one of the most powerful and overtly political albums he’s ever made. “Antifa” celebrates the current resistance movement with a stomping metal beat, a wall of guitars and growling lyrics that raise a fist—and a middle finger—to right-wing bigots.
Jourgensen doesn’t call out our commander-in-chief by name, but the blistering speed-metal screed of “We’re Tired Of It” lines out his faults (political and physical) with a bracing jolt of rage and vicious humor. “Twilight Zone” echoes the helpless fury and confusion many people felt on Nov. 9, 2016, with a confusion of overdubbed voices, a grinding industrial beat and the question many of us keep asking: “Where do we go from here?”
As a quintessential fan’s band (seemingly beloved, at some point, by virtually anyone who’s been a nerdy adolescent in the past 30 years—and/or a nerdy pre-tween in the past 15) whose work is absurdly consistent in both quality and inimitable, idiosyncratic M.O., it’s hard to imagine any new TMBG record either majorly disappointing their faithful or engaging those outside the fold. Their 20th—and perhaps most aptly titled—likely won’t change the latter, either, but it deserves to more than most. Musically, it’s another melodic goldmine and their most vigorous, least fussy work in ages, hearkening back to 2007’s The Else, and even 1994’s John Henry, in favoring guitar-centric power pop and straight-up rock ’n’ roll.
Lyrically, I Like Fun might be the most black-humored of an often deceptively dark catalog—the album’s positively anthemic final refrain runs, in part, “We die alone/We die afraid/We live in terror”—which is likely an oblique sign of the times. While little here is overtly political, it’s hard not to read many of these characteristically sly, knotty songs—a triumphal-sounding yet crushingly sardonic time-capsule missive; a report of “lake monsters” swarming the polling stations; feeble optimism following some unnamed, probably apocalyptic catastrophe; even a posthumous post-mortem from one of Bluebeard’s victims—as reflective of our current grim state of affairs. As the irrepressibly bouncy swingtime opener puts it: “Let’s Get This Over With.”
—K. Ross Hoffman
John Cale talks about his VU past and future
Rather than being a man of rumination after 50 years in the biz, John Cale is still pretty much a forward-looking chap. Along with recently finishing off what he calls “a fairly funky” studio effort influenced in part by Kendrick Lamar, Cale is considering new film scores and touring opportunities. Hitting 75, however—to say nothing of the Velvets’ golden anniversary—did give him pause, enough so to stage birthday and anniversary events in the VU’s name at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last November.
“I’m interested in changing the possibilities of all the Velvets’ songs, even the instrumentation,” he told MAGNET in advance of the shows. “I’m aware that people expect to hear things as they remember them—which isn’t going to happen anyway. But we have a lot to work with.”
Cale chatted about the past in its place—of his initial relationship with Reed (“We mentored each other”), with Warhol’s lust for fame (“He was good at getting attention”) and failing to generate record sales (“We snarled a lot”). Cale also mentioned future Velvets endeavors such as Oscar-nominated director Todd Haynes’ upcoming VU documentary. “I don’t know where he’s going with it,” he says, “but I got a good feeling.”