words by Nick Graveline
Every time an artist I love puts out a new album, I get a little nervous. Regardless of their career, what I’ve heard through interviews and preliminary reviews, or singles that get released ahead of time, nothing can ease my mind until that fateful moment where I press play and let it sink in. Bottom line, if it’s an artist I’m a fanatic about, the last thing I want is to be disappointed. The weeks leading up to the new Spiritualized record Sweet Heart Sweet Light were no exception; after I got a glimpse at the bizarre choice of album art, I thought J. Spaceman (real name Jason Pierce) had officially drifted out of orbit.
But then I got the record, and I’ve got to say that there are huge perks to setting the bar low. Not only does it wane your disappointment should it happen, but also it makes those moments when expectations are far surpassed all the sweeter. And this album is space-gospel-rock-n-roll candy. His first release since 2008’s Songs In A&E—an album largely attributed to a long hospital stay following a near death experience—Sweet Heart Sweet Light shows signs of recuperation with minimal traces of scar tissue. While Pierce has always blurred the lines between drugs, religion, and rock music in his work, it seems that having a brush with death put all three into sharper focus; that none can ultimately save you. But in listening to this record, it sounds as if Pierce is still not convinced.
“So Long You Pretty Thing” is a prime example of this. The song starts slow, sounding like the type of hymn a congregation would sing on Good Friday, or at a wake. Pierce sings out to God and Jesus, looking for succor and answers to the deepest of existential questions, “hoping for a reason to be here,” and “hoping for the reason to be clear.” But the song shifts at the 4:15 mark, where a chorus that combines both redemption and blessing rings out backed by horns, strings, and a choir. Nothing is ultimately answered, and it’s not even clear if Pierce is discouraged, but rather just hoping to offer a spark to light the way, as he fades into silence singing “sail on, so long.”
Sweet Heart Sweet Light is definitely a favorite of 2012 so far, but if you haven’t checked him out before, Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating In Space is a good place to start.
“I’ve Seen Footage” – Death Grips
About a year ago at this time I was frantically piecing together my honors’ thesis, a process that, while intended to be studious, frequently got sidetracked by crushing waves of procrastination. On one such occasion, I was wired on coffee and too many cigarettes (sorry mom) at 2 am when I stumbled across a mixtape called Ex-Military by a mysterious group called Death Grips. I loaded the files, and pressed play. Suddenly I had two and a half pages written, I felt physically exhausted, and as the last track trailed off into distorted drum hits I noticed that this man has finally stopped screaming. I was punch drunk off aesthetically pleasing anger muddled with cracked-out swag. I proceeded to send links to everyone I knew before calling it a night.
A year later, Death Grips are no longer the enigma they once were, but that hasn’t made them any less intriguing. The vocals/battle cries that I remember scaring the bejesus out of me belong to Stefan Burnett, while the production is the work of Zach Hill, the self-taught, human drum machine of math-rock band Hella, and Andy Morin on keys. Recently signed to Epic, the trio dropped their first album The Money Store to wide acclaim, and it’s packed to the brim with crack rock gems. “I’ve Seen Footage” instantly took me back to that moment of first hearing them, and it’s a prime example of how head bobbing and a flight or flight reaction can be melded into the perfect synthesis. The group displays a few influences proudly on this track, with synths reminiscent of Gary Numan, and a muddled sample of what sounds a whole hell of a lot like Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It” buried beneath Burnett screaming about what he’s seen. And he does not sound happy. For further listening, check out their mixtape free Ex-Military, or pick up a copy of The Money Store.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but I just want to reiterate: I love electronic music. And I don’t mean club oriented, four on the floor, fist-pumping jams (though I have been known to get down when downs need to get got), but I’m talking like weird stuff. The kind of music that sounds more reminiscent of household appliances than actual instruments. All that being said, Actress (real name Darren Cunningham) is one of those artists that sound closer to a tumble dry setting than a club banger. But his music is beautiful, despite, and this is especially true of his new album R.I.P., it being a bit unsettling.
I had some difficulty choosing one song in particular from this album because it really captures something as a whole, but “Caves Of Paradise” was one that floated to the top. What I find curious about this track, and many other ones on R.I.P., is that Cunningham’s production style has undergone a serious shift. On his 2009 album Splazsh, the production and timing on those tracks was flawless to the point of seeming almost mechanical in nature. Beats and textures would fluctuate and push the tracks forward, but the overall structure of the songs unfolded with clock like precision. Yet “Caves of Paradise”, and the rest of R.I.P., sound alive, a curious choice for an album that one can only assume is meant to grapple with death.
But it’s creepy. The mood on “Caves” is set and sustained by four parts that shuffle in and out with variance: drums, clouds, moans, and, oddly, flute. The drums come across as both organic and synthetic, at times wooden and others like oscillating radio frequencies. The clouds are layers of reverb that hover above and behind much of the track, operating both as a wash, and carrying over from bass hits that diffuse like rocks falling into a cavern. The moans, while not exactly Tales From the Crypt worthy, were most likely once an R&B crooner now processed into seductive ennui that’s forlorn as much as it is hair raising. The flute is the only aspect that offers any semblance of clarity, acting like light slipping through cracks in a boarded up window.
If this sounds intriguing, and you’re not an avid electronic listener, I’d recommend giving this a try—think of it as the sound of household chores, but with artistic intent.
When Cults debuted two summers ago with a 7” of three of the best crafted, Phil Spector influenced pop songs I’d heard in a long time, I played that thing out until their album finally gave me a slightly wider array of songs to choose from. But sometimes even when you love a band, it can take a turn of events, a change of perspective, or just the right moment for a song of theirs to stand out in a new light. For me, one of these moments happened at Turner Hall where I had the opportunity to see them live. I had come to see them play “Go Outside” “Most Wanted” and “Abducted”, the songs that up until that point had defined them as a band in my mind. But all that was shuffled around when they played “You Know What I Mean”.
Fit for a couples’ skate or a slow dance at a 60’s prom, this track muddles longing and desperation, while managing to lash out at those very same emotions that give it its depth. All of this is made possible by Madeline Follin’s voice, and hearing it live was like waking up in Oz after living in black and white. She’s one of those singers that sounds better live, and whose passion comes across as almost volatile, like if she were to exert herself any harder she might fly apart. But she never lost her poise. Standing on stage swaying her dress slightly, she filled the room with “You Know What I Mean”, a song about the duality of asking for help, and simultaneously feeling weak as a result. Follin manages to bridge that cause and effect by finding common ground in certain aspects of loneliness that we all experience, which is not a sign of weakness, but merely a side effect of being human. Although hearing them live was a near out of body experience, not to mention the lights were trippy as hell. Going back and listening to the studio version of “You Know What I Mean” has made me see the error in my ways; it’s simply a fantastic song. But goddamn, hearing it live is hard to top.
“Nearly Old Friends” – Horse Feathers
My senior year of college I was feeling a bit spread thin between school and the job I’d managed to find. But the crux of it was the anxiety I always feel when I can sense a chapter of my life coming to a close. It was in the midst of this funk that I discovered Horse Feathers, more specifically their 2008 album House With No Home. Virtually every aspect of their sound—lead singer/songwriter Justin Ringle’s heartbreaking voice, the bittersweet strings and piano chords, the percussion that flourishes rather than keeping time, and the plucking and strumming of mandolins/banjos/guitars—is beautiful, sad, mournful, and celebratory all at once. While I’ve given their other two albums, Thistle Spring and Words Are Dead, countless listens, neither has managed to gets its roots in me like House With No Home.
On their new record Cynic’s New Year, the formula remains intact, and it came at a time where I was in the market for something bittersweet and infused with light. So far, “Nearly Old Friends” has kept me coming back. As a band, Horse Feathers don’t really get wild in any capacity, but prefer to rely on gentleness that ebbs and flows with moments heightened tension. While Ringle’s lyrics are often hard to distinguish, the emotional tone is rarely rooted in lyrical content. It’s a product of his delivery. But there are a couple lines in in “Nearly Old Friends” that stick out clearly, and the wonky phrasing of a common phrase tickled the dorky English major in me, “with a dirty tongue / something wicked is bound to this way come / then we’ll see / if we both have to crawl from the bottom.” Like most of their songs, I don’t like them for what they mean, but for how they make me feel. This song is no exception. Here they capture how complex relationships on any level can ultimately be, while giving credit to our inherent need to see them out for better or for worse where emotions are concerned. Horse Feathers are a band that I feel blessed to have in my life, one that I know I can rely on to get me through those periods where breaking through to the other side seems insurmountable. I’d recommend them to anyone.