These past three months, and really, this whole year, have been a time of incredible change for me. Moving to another school in another state, dealing with the end of a long relationship, and having to adjust to life anew. Its been a tough stretch musically too. Being a North Jersey resident, losing Maxwell’s in Hoboken was a terrible blow. Then came the loss of one of my great musical heroes, Lou Reed, in October. This is almost too much.
The Walkmen, for my money one of America’s best rock bands, have announced an indefinite, “extreme” hiatus. They aren’t quite “broken up”, they simply have no plans whatsoever to continue. There wasn’t any tension, no drama, no on-stage blow-ups, just the end of the line. And there’s something so wonderfully Walkmen-y about that. They never made headlines, they never called people out or went on onstage tirades. For over a decade, they were quietly one of indie rock’s crown jewels, making great record after great record. They didn’t obliterate rock’s rulebook like Radiohead, but they twisted it in their own, uniquely brilliant way. They leave behind a body of work that truly speaks for itself.
Revenge Wears No Wristwatch
I remember first noticing the Walkmen from the cover to their first album.
Sitting innocuously in my dad’s massive record collection, my 13 year old brain said “I have to listen to this shit…” “Revenge Wears No Wristwatch” was so odd that I was incredibly taken aback by it. But two listens led to five, which led to ten, then twenty. The guitars seemed to be falling all over each other, the keyboards barely audible. The singer sounded like he didn’t know for sure if he wanted to sing the lyrics until a second before they came quietly out of his mouth. I had no reference point whatsoever for what it sounded like, and that’s what made it so bizarrely fascinating. And, all these years later, I still have no reference point for it. Its a song, and a whole debut that really stands alone among rock music at the time.
Later that year, still in 8th grade, I was talking to one of the two kids in my middle school beside myself who listened to what I thought of then as “weird music.” He knew who this strange band was! He hadn’t heard of their first album, but he told me about a killer song from their sophomore record called “The Rat.” I found that album too, and immediately went to that song. At that point I loved anything that rocked. Nirvana, Black Flag, The Who, Zeppelin, the Ramones, Sonic Youth; the louder the better. I liked the Walkmen more as a curiosity. “The Rat” showed me that they were more than a curiosity. When they wanted to, these guys could slay. Featuring one of the great percussive performances in recent rock history, this song moves along at a thousand miles an hour, leveling anything that dares get in its way. It made me even more of a fan.
While I Shovel the Snow
I sorta forgot about the Walkmen during my brutal freshmen year of high school. For some reason their charms didn’t extend me to at the time. Fast forward a year, I have a girlfriend, and I’m much happier. I pick up Lisbon, their new album. Its Christmastime, and its fucking cold. Boxing Day brings a foot of snow. As it comes down I hear “While I Shovel the Snow” for the first time. If there’s a better winter song that’s been written, I’d really like to hear it. They can rock, they’re odd, and my god they can write an incredible ballad too!!
I rated it last year as the best album of 2012, and stand by that still. For all the craziness that comes at the end of high school, that album always worked. It was always beautiful, poignant, and exquisitely crafted. Its an album of maturity and growing up, both things that I was faced with as I wrote applications to colleges in other states, far from my comfy hometown. Its still an album that I look to often.
We’ve Been Had
Its been a terrible day in Amherst. The ol’ Pioneer Valley has a tendency to suck in fog and hold it like someone holding on to a valuable on a crowded city subway. The view outside my seventh floor window has been defined by one or two variations of grey for the last two days. Finals and the end of the semester are approaching. Honestly, if the Walkmen were to ever go, I didn’t want it to be at a time like this. But I guess they have nothing to say anymore. They would be the band to go out gracefully, without fanfare. Their music lacked it, but was so perfect, touching, and wonderful in its own way. If they don’t come back, I’ll really miss the Walkmen. They were a band that operated on another wavelength. They seemed to have a unique understanding of the complexities of life, and an understanding of how to translate that seamlessly into their music. Legs McNeil once said about the Ramones, “they took everything that was shitty and made it beautiful.” For the Ramones that does have an element of truth, but I think it applies just as much to the Walkmen. Thanks for the music guys.
One of music’s most nasty feuds this year has been the great Black Flag War. Revolving around two different bands both celebrating the legacy of quite possibly the most influential and important American punk band ever, it has often had the childishly angry tone of some of the band’s greatest music. On one side is Greg Ginn and “Black Flag”. As Black Flag’s founder, guitarist, main songwriter, and sole constant member, Ginn controls the rights to the band’s name. On the other is “Flag” comprised of former members Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, and Bill Stevenson. Henry Rollins, Black Flag’s former frontman and poster boy (and their most famous member) once said that if you gave any former band member two words to describe why they left Black Flag “one would be Greg, and the other would be Ginn.” Ginn is a notorious control freak, and had to this point fallen out with virtually every former member of the band. That was, except for the band’s briefly-tenured singer Ron Reyes, who joined “Black Flag.” Reyes lent his vocals, and artwork, to What The… the first album under the Black Flag name in 27 years.
This album, in the weeks before its release, seemed to be an easy candidate for “worst album ever made.” Black Flag’s original, powerful album art was done by Raymond Pettibon, one of punk’s great artists. Even though he’s Ginn’s brother, even Pettibon has had a falling out with Greg. So artwork was put in the charge of Ron Reyes, and….. uh…. well…. there it is… take it or leave it. It had twenty two songs whose titles included “Go Away”, “Slow Your Ass Down”, “This Is Hell” and “Shut Up.” And then, a week before the album’s release, Reyes quit the band. Citing irreconcilable differences with Ginn, Reyes painted an incredibly ugly picture of this incarnation of Black Flag. So, literally kicking and screaming, What The… has finally arrived.
What The… actually does have a couple of redeeming qualities. Original as ever, Ginn’s riffing is vicious. Reyes’ voice also still packs a punch, and the interplay between him and Ginn is occasionally exciting. But in the end the spotlight mostly belongs to Ginn here. Which brings us to the album’s first, and most damning issue. The album’s production, so key for a hardcore punk release, is absolutely dreadful. You can tell Ginn produced it because you can’t hear anything other than his guitar. The rhythm section of Ginn on bass (under the name Dale Nixon) and drummer Gregory Moore is, when you can hear them, constantly sluggish and flat. Moore’s drumming is buried so deeply in the mix that its a strain to hear if he is in fact playing at all. Ginn’s own bass playing is completely bereft of any sort of diversity or detail and is similarly buried to the point of uselessness. For all of his vocal strength, Reyes fights an often futile battle to be heard over a wall of Ginn guitar.
Although Reyes’, Keith Morris’, and Henry Rollins’ vocal stylings in the original Black Flag were always tempestuous tantrums, that same style doesn’t sound convincing at all anymore. Reyes’ lyrics are simply terrible, and unbelievably repetitive. After about five minutes, the songs begin to bleed into one another; every song sounding exactly the same as the one before it. With almost two dozen songs, and a 44 minute runtime, the album is an endless slog. The album’s one great moment, the brutal “Down In the Dirt”, is its second track. So, after “Down In the Dirt” there is no reprieve from the insufferable toss-aways like “Shut Up”, “This Is Hell”, “Go Away” and “I’m Sick” that make up almost all of this record.
With this blemish on their discography, and the endless bickering, its easy to forget just how important Black Flag was to independent music. Before Black Flag there was no independent music. Their experimentation and fearless genre-hopping would still be viewed as daring, even insane, in today’s music. Its a shame that Ginn felt the need to sully his own discography in this way. With Reyes gone, there’s no telling what the future of this incarnation of Black Flag is. But its likely that, as long as he’s up to it, Ginn will continue Black Flag for as long as he pleases, whether we like it or not.
In his amazing review of 70’s dinosaurs Chicago’s quadruple album Live At Carnegie Hall, Lester Bangs wrote of his unfailing trust in Columbia Records. “I like this album because its on Columbia Records. I trust them.” Considering the enormous, countless amount of small record labels that exist in today’s musical landscape, its hard to always totally trust any of them. But Woodsist Records happens to be an exception. Like SST in the early-mid 80’s, and the early days of Dischord, you can always expect a high degree of quality and originality from a Woodsist release. Former home to indie greats Real Estate, and current home to groups like White Fence and Woods, Woodsist has a great roster of music. And, as a key member of both Woods and another Woodsist band, the Babies, Kevin Morby has already lent his talents to some wonderful releases. Harlem River is his first solo album, and features contributions from members of both the Babies and White Fences. Intended as an homage to New York City, the album moves seamlessly and beautifully through its eight tracks.
The songs on Harlem River alternate between jam-bandesque rock and a more spare folk-type sound. Opener “Miles Miles Miles” rolls along methodically with jangling guitars and light but effective hooks. “Wild Side (Oh the Place You’ll Go)” is similar, but a bit more conventional in its verse-chorus verse structure and a bit easier to fully grasp and enjoy. The nine-minute title track is the only chink in the album’s armor. Although its a built on a fantastic groove, the extended jam that ends the track is a bit too lengthy to keep up the groove’s momentum, and spoils the song a little. By contrast the acoustic, folky “If You Leave and If You Marry” is a simple delight.
"Slow Train" is the best of the album’s more lengthy, electric tracks. Relaxed but assured in its pace, it is a gorgeous, summery highlight that never overreaches or extends itself. After the up-tempo "Reign" comes the album’s best track, "Sucker In the Void (Lone Mile)." Like "Slow Train", it is strictly mid-tempo, but always focused and endlessly pleasing. Closer "The Dead They Don’t Come Back" is more acoustic and country-ish. It perfectly balances weighty lyrics with a sweet and sentimental musicality brought out by a crying pedal steel that is sprinkled around the song.
The leisurely feel of Harlem River seemingly goes against its creator’s desire to pay homage to the world’s most important city. The album seems to be a portrait of New York as Morby sees it. And just as the Ramones represented New York with a fucked-up, disturbing spin on 50’s rock ‘n’ roll, and the National represent New York as a rain-soaked, unpromising, and uncompromising land of failure and vulnerability, Morby seemingly represents it as a beautiful, more bright place. And while he may not be as convincing in his sentiment as the Ramones were, and the National are, Morby’s debut album is lovely enough to make that mostly irrelevant.
Andrew Bird- I Want To See Pulaski At Night (EP) 8.1
Many rock musicians love to flirt with classical and baroque music. Incorporating strains of them in a modern context can often make a piece of music sound more vibrant and lively. But while many simply take a passing glance at these styles, Andrew Bird has relied on them for much of his career. Unique among most in the large universe of indie rock, his main instrument is violin, and he is nothing short of a virtuoso. His use of classical string stylings rarely used in rock combined with fairly conventional indie-rock vocals was always brilliantly idiosyncratic. His new EP, I Want To See Pulaski At Night, is 6/7ths instrumental, and is mostly a display of his instrumental and compositional wizardry on the violin. Throughout its half-hour length, Bird effortlessly fashions gorgeous classical and baroque pieces from little more than a few layers of strings.
The EP’s opener, the first of the two-part piece “Ethio Invention”, demonstrates an Eastern influence early on. The light, gently plucked melody that opens the piece gradually cedes the spotlight to another, solo violin that takes the track to stunning melodic heights. “Lit From Underneath” is the EP’s most playful track, maintaining a light tone despite a somber cello melody that takes the spotlight from the gleaming violins at the halfway mark. After the pretty, all-too-brief “Logan’s Loop”, comes the title track. The only track on the EP featuring his vocals, Bird makes it count. “I paint you a picture/of Pulaski at night/come back to Chicago/the city of light”, he croons over gentle, pizzicato strings. The EP’s only weak point is the two-part “Hover”, which covers the next two songs. Unlike the rest of the EP, these two songs don’t really feature any soul-melting melodies, and tend to be indistinguishable from one another. The second part of “Ethio Invention” rounds things out in style. Although structurally similar to the first part, this piece really has a distinct flavor that lets it carry on seamlessly for the entirety of its eight-minute duration.
Andrew Bird’s talent is incredibly distinct. When you hear a song of his, it bears his unmistakable melodic stamp. Informed by music of the past centuries, Bird’s pieces evoke raw emotion in a way that less organic modern music just can’t. I Want To See Pulaski At Night is a demonstration of just how good he is at creating these sort of beautiful, modern, baroque and classical compositions. Sharing a trait with ambient music, this EP can relegate itself to only play in the background of your life, but it will never be dull or sound tired. There will always be a new, intriguing layer to discover.
And they recorded great, too. With each release, Sirs played with better and better clarity. No longer the homogenized song soup of the early days, you could hear each bass drum kick and the difference between the two Telecasters. And Justin’s voice got better and better the more he screamed. Ironic, really.
3. Undertakers Whistling Their Hearts Out
Sirs announced today that they’re ending operations after their tour. Four years on, and I’m a freshmen again. Still loud, but overall, I’ve changed. I’m not trying to indulge myself though, but rather bring up a point-that everything is in cycles.
Look at Minor Threat. They released two EP’s, an album and a final EP. Look at Sirs- an album, sure, but two EP’s, an other album, and a final EP. It seems like a desirable run. Sirs was a beautiful band with a beautiful sound, a sound I can bookend between two freshman years. Time will tell when other great bands I grew up with will call it a day. Bands like Toasted Plastic, Spook Houses and even Titus Andronicus have seemingly hit the apex of their careers, and it would be understandable if they were to end. We’re getting old after all. But that’s ok. We’re gonna be great.
Shields is an album that certainly stands tall enough in its own right. But it wasn’t made easily. After a brief hiatus, the quartet reconvened for recording sessions in Marfa, Texas. By all accounts the sessions were a near-disaster, and virtually nothing from any of the 20 or so demos they cut there ended up on Shields. On this collection, we get to hear 5 of the best tracks completed during Grizzly Bear’s time in Marfa. And if you needed more proof, other than Shields itself, that Grizzly Bear are truly at the top of their game, look no farther. The 5 “b-sides” are as good as the best songs 95% of bands will ever make. One has to wonder what a couple of these songs weren’t doing on Shields in the first place. But one also has to wonder why the band didn’t release just these 5 songs as a standalone EP; instead of putting these 5 tracks with 3 bloated remixes of Shields songs. The 3 remixes prevent this collection from being a revelatory experience as it should be.
The band’s other co-singer/guitarist, Ed Droste, opens things up with “Will Calls.” A gorgeous, slow waltz in its verses, the song explodes into a colorful, psychedelic chorus with ease. Rossen’s lead guitar work, as always, is absolutely fantastic; adding small flourishes whenever needed. Droste continues the proceedings with “Taken Down”, a more measured and acoustic song. His vocals rise and fall beautifully over Rossen’s controlled but lively acoustic playing. Rossen’s “Listen and Wait” is an ethereal, piano-driven track that is dominated by Christopher Bear’s booming, percussive drumming. “Smothering Green” dances gracefully through section after section over six and a half minutes, further demonstrating Rossen’s songwriting mastery. Droste’s acoustic demo, “Everyone I Know”, harkens back to Grizzly Bear’s 2004 debut Horn of Plenty. Basically a Droste solo record, Horn of Plenty laid bare Droste’s sensitivity and extraordinary voice over mostly solo, acoustic backing. “Everyone I Know” is more of the same in this way.
But after these come the remixes. First, electronic wunderkid Nicholas Jaar tries his hand at Shields opener “Sleeping Ute.” (At least for my money) still the best song of 2012, “Sleeping Ute” didn’t really need a remix at all. But Jaar’s actually does the song justice. Manipulating the song’s stunning opening riff and vocals, chopping them up and sprinkling them over the various electronic soundscapes he creates, Jaar does an excellent job of recreating the sublime qualities of the original in another context. Unfortunately, the two closing remixes aren’t nearly as successful. Liars remix “A Simple Answer”, and essentially turn it into an eight-minute Liars song, and a sort of boring one at that. But this is nothing compared to Norwegian disco producer Lindstrøm’s handling of “Gun-Shy.” Although it wasn’t one of Shields' better moments, it never deserved to be turned into the generic, boring 90's Euro-dance track it becomes in this incarnation. Its a disappointing and unnecessarily bad ending to a collection that begins in such a strong way.
If this collection was handled better, it would be much better than it ends up being. The remixes are fairly obviously a method of pushing this collection to LP-length, rather than EP-length. But this move reflects more on Grizzly Bear’s label than it does on the band themselves. If anything, this release bolsters the band’s status as one of rock’s most forward thinking and creative bands. When a band’s outtakes and B-sides are this good, you know they are something special.