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Reviews: Two Inch Astronaut's Bad Brother

Two Inch Astronaut's Bad Brother

Given my fondness for reunited ’90s indie rock bands and current bands influenced by ’90s indie rock, you might think I’m paralyzed by nostalgia for 1996, spending my days watching reruns of The Single Guy, flipping through my high school yearbook, and circling future purchases in the Touch and Go catalog. Unbelievable as it may be, this scenario is not accurate. Two key distinctions: first, I do not pine for my 1996 existence, a key aspect of nostalgia. No part of me wants to return to high school—I literally have nightmares about it happening. Second, with regards to the ’90s music mentioned above, I never stopped enjoying it. I’m not returning to a time when I listened to Chavez, Hum, and Girls Against Boys—I still listen Chavez, Hum, and Girls Against Boys. It’s not like I’m making playlists of the ’90s alt-rock hits that were shoved down my throat; the mere thought of “Brimful of Asha” beckons a cold sweat.

The closest I’ll come to being properly nostalgic is recalling my 120 Minutes routine. I’d stay up until midnight on Sundays to press record, rightfully distrusting the programmable VCR's ability to perform its advertised duty. When I watched the tape, I’d dub favorites like Girls Against Boys’ “Super-Fire” to audio cassette, where school-bus replays would encourage a trip to Circuit City or Media Play to purchase a CD that would, by fiscal necessity, receive almost exclusive attention for a few weeks. A tedious process, yes, but it was my primary method of learning about new music. Contrast that set-up with 2013, where recommendations are dumped on me on an hourly basis from a wide range of sources, music can be freely and easily heard, and new records become ancient within a week. The singularity of my 120 Minutes indoctrination tempts a rose-colored remembrance, at least until Matt Pinfield’s visage starts blathering on about the latest Oasis single.

The song that triggered this 120 Minutes flashback is “Blood from a Loyal Hound,” from Two Inch Astronaut’s Bad Brother. Its component parts project a low-budget video courtesy of Alias or Caroline Records on my wall—the ear-catching opening riff, the verse slow-down, the energy burst into the chorus, the falsetto hook, the passionate spike of its final refrain, and a careening-off-the-walls conclusion. While I can’t create a proper treatment for this hypothetical video without rewatching the clips for "Harnessed in Slums" and "Pat's Trick" all afternoon, here’s the pitch: it opens with a sped-up, possibly colorized version of a mundane day-job (copy shop or coffee house), switches to the band performing when the first verse starts, deftly jump-cuts between the practice space and the day job scenes, gets progressively weirder with the band's wardrobe in each space, then closes on them first performing in and then destroying their hated workplace. The video for "Blood from a Loyal Hound" might never make it into regular rotation or the beloved Buzz Bin, but it would certainly prompt my cycle of cassette dub / Media Play CD purchase / four weeks of singular rotation. Media Play and Circuit City are still doing well, right?

Apologies to Two Inch Astronaut for focusing so heavily on the past; by no means is Bad Brother solely reminiscent of mid-'90s cut-out classics. Like I mentioned in my review of their split single with Boston's Grass Is Green, there's plenty of DeSoto/Dischord post-punk influence here, with particular nods to Devin Ocampo's Faraquet (in the leads) and Medications (in the knotty structures of "He Was Our Boy"). But Two Inch Astronaut push the songs in both more aggressive, post-hardcore and more melodic, '90s alternative rock directions. The wild energy and throttling chords of "Spank Jail" represent the former nicely, splitting the difference between the control of Drive Like Jehu and the caterwauling of Daniel Striped Tiger. As for the alt-rock reference points, I've absolutely racked my brain trying to determine which synapses are firing over mid-tempo anthems like "Check the Yard," and the best I can come up with from the 120 Minutes pool is a less goofy Self, although Hammer No More the Fingers provide a good contemporary touchstone. Consider the crucial difference between a band being melodic and a band having memorable melodies; Two Inch Astronaut belongs firmly in the latter category.

Two Inch Astronaut’s triumvirate of tricky, aggressive, and catchy is awfully hard to top in my book, and Bad Brother flies by even faster than its fat-free twenty-seven-minute runtime. It’s almost a shame that so many of their peers have released similarly excellent LPs of late—almost—since Bad Brother deserves a few weeks of your undivided attention (and not just because you can’t afford any other albums).

Reviews: Ventura's Ultima Necat

Ventura's Ultima Necat

Three years between albums is not an eternity, but I was beginning to wonder if Ventura would deliver a follow-up to their mammoth 2010 LP We Recruit. Being an ocean away from the Swiss trio’s tour dates, I was left to dwell on their last proper release, a heartily recommended seven-inch released later in 2010 with David Yow on The Jesus Lizard on vocals. When a considerable part of your aesthetic is founded upon ’90s Touch and Go guitar rock (i.e., aggressive, tight, and bullshit-free), teaming with Yow is a potentially dangerous form of wish-fulfillment. I was ignoring the flipside of that coin: Yow was equally fortunate in the team-up, jumping from the Jesus Lizard’s reunion tour into a European vacation with a younger group with something left to prove. The lingering question remained, however: did they already prove it through this dalliance with a noise rock hall of famer?

Apparently not. Ultima Necat is not the product of a band resting on its laurels—it’s a significant step forward from the already impressive We Recruit. Few bands achieve the tonal consistency displayed here: its gravitational pull locks you into a seriously heavy and downright serious forty-two minutes. In true Touch and Go spirit, nothing gets in the way of the songwriting. The production is bruising but clean, delivering its monstrous heft without collapsing underneath it.

Extend that ethic to the lyrical approach, too. We Recruit had moments of gallows humor, but Ultima Necat never cheats its focus. Case in point: I initially anticipated that the album’s epic centerpiece, the nearly twelve-minute “Amputee,” would undercut its wailing refrain “I feel like an amputee / I want my legs back” with a smirk like We Recruit’s “Twenty-Four Thousand People” did, but Phillipe Henchoz instead goes deeper, repeating “I’d like to dance again” and “If that dance could be with you,” his voice breaking down as the riffs lock in. There’s a fearless honesty to it, like Brian McMahan’s wounded vocals on Spiderland: if someone laughs at the vulnerability displayed, they’re the idiot (who will get caught in the crossfire of the seven minutes of escalating riff warfare that follows).

Ultima Necat draws from other pairings of heaviness and vulnerability. The chord progressions of “Little Wolf” echo Hum’s Electra 2000, but its outro dives down to Mastodon’s hull-crushing depths. Henchoz revisits Come’s chord battles with the twangs of “Body Language.” “Intruder” starts out like a malicious version of Codeine, but abandons John Engle’s starker arrangements in favor of layers of back-masked guitars. “Very Elephant Man” head-fakes at the math-rock of Don Caballero’s For Respect before ascending into the territory of Sunny Day Real Estate’s LP2 (h/t Shallow Rewards). Closer “Exquisite and Subtle” floats Herchoz’s vocals and blurred, shoegaze-inflected guitar far above the rhythm section. It’s heavy, yes, but the tractor beam of the preceding eight tracks has been lifted, letting you drift out of orbit.

Even with near-twelve minutes consumed by “Amputee,” Ultima Necat still clocks with a perfect forty-two-minute runtime. Such economy proves essential; the album’s unblinking focus could have turned suffocating with the addition of a few more songs. Instead, I ride out the muscular plateau of “Exquisite and Subtle” and gladly start back at the top with the aptly titled “About to Despair.” Consider Ultima Necat written in pen in the upper echelons of my 2013 year-end list.

Ultima Necat is available digitally though Bandcamp, Amazon, and iTunes. However, it’s well worth importing a physical copy of the vinyl from Africantape or an American distributor for the gatefold sleeve alone.

Reviews: Rodan's Fifteen Quiet Years

Rodan's Fifteen Quiet Years

Picking up Rodan's Fifteen Quiet Years, a highly anticipated collection from the short-lived Louisville greats, was the highlight of my biannual decimation of Chicago record stores. One key caveat: I had already heard every song on the vinyl. I own a few copies of the How the Winter Was Passed single, grabbed The Machines from Record Service in Champaign to hear "Darjeeling" (with the clerk, Todd Bell from Braid, praising my purchase on the merits of that song), mail-ordered Half-Cocked on VHS along with its soundtrack to hear “Tron,” scoured enough used bins to find the Compulsiv for Two single with the Aviary version of "Shiner," traded bootleg cassettes to hear the rest of Aviary and the live version of "Big Things, Small Things" from the initial pressing of Working Holiday, and hunted down their Peel Session on the earliest peer-to-peer filesharing networks. My years of Rodan obsession removed most of the surprises from Fifteen Quiet Years, but not the excitement of its long-overdue corporeal existence.

To reiterate the key point: Rodan remain worthy of obsession. With no slight to their Louisville forefathers Slint, Rodan's family tree reigned over my high-school notebooks. The group had split up before I first heard 1994's Rusty, their lone full-length, but my ravenous appetite for their blend of post-rock, math-rock, hardcore, post-hardcore, and indie rock only grew from the mystery of their short lifespan. No matter how many related acts I tracked down—boat-crazed math-rockers June of 44, neo-classical troupe Rachel's, bastions of beautiful restraint The Sonora Pine, slightly less boat-crazed math-rockers The Shipping News—I could never find one that precisely replicated what made Rodan so intoxicating, which is why I spent so much time sifting through used bins for the ephemera collected on Fifteen Quiet Years. Rodan possessed characteristics of all of their offspring, but what those later groups lacked (or perhaps could never have had) was the fiery passion of youth. The blistering hardcore of "Shiner" and the planet-shifting emotional gravity of "Everyday World of Bodies" mattered absolutely to its authors. That intensity is hard to maintain and harder to repeat in different situations. You could say that's the raison d'être of emo as a genre, which Rodan presumably represents along with the others I mentioned above, but very few of its acts overwhelm like Rusty does. (Rites of Spring and pre-reunion Sunny Day Real Estate are the only ones that come to mind.) Couple that boundless passion with the compositional maturity of "Bible Silver Corner" and you have a good sense of why I became a zealot.

Even though I wasn't actually around for its demise, I enjoyed theorizing on why Rodan split. I drew factions through their family tree with singer/guitarists Jason Noble and Jeff Mueller on one side (given their eventual recoupling in The Shipping News) and singer/bassist Tara Jane O'Neil and final drummer Kevin Coultras on the other (since they stuck together in The Sonora Pine). That divide overlooked how both Mueller and Coultras guested on Handwriting, the 1995 debut LP for Rachel's. I saw how Noble and Mueller continued to write and perform aggressive rock music in The Shipping News (with their final LP, 2010's One Less Heartless to Fear, offering their most palpable dose of fury), while Tara Jane O'Neil gradually shed the seething menace of "Tooth Fairy Retribution Manifesto" in The Sonora Pine, Retsin, and her prolific solo career. Perhaps it was as simple as no longer being 23, no longer feeling "Everyday World of Bodies" in their bones.

The most infuriating aspect of Rodan's demise is how seemingly close they were to having a follow-up to Rusty. With no offense intended to the blistering beauty of "Darjeeling," the instrumental implosion of "Exoskeleton," or the hardcore leanings of "Milk and Melancholy" and "Tron," Fifteen Quiet Years' pre-Rusty output doesn't intrigue as much as its post-Rusty forecasting. If you take "Big Things, Small Things," "Before the Train," "Sangre," "Wurl," "Martin," and The Sonora Pine's "Rungs" (a Rodan leftover not included here), you have six songs spanning roughly forty minutes, the default profile for mid-’90s post-rock.

The core of Hypothetical Rodan Album Number Two would have been “Sangre,” a Tara Jane O’Neil tour de force. Few vocalists deliver haunting evocations with visceral force like O’Neil did in Rodan, and “Sangre” surpasses “Toothfairy Retribution Manifesto” in how smoothly O’Neil shifts gears. “Big Things, Small Things” lines up as the likely single, a Jeff Mueller-sung rocker with more anthemic melodies than anything on Rusty. It’s halfway between Rusty and June of 44’s “Rivers and Plains” (their superlative contribution to the Lounge Ax Defense and Relocation compilation). From there, HRA #2 goes heavy on math-rock, with the eleven-minute “Before the Train” flexing its muscles in stops and starts, “Wurl” careening between a tricky riff and a dreamy, cathartic midsection reminiscent of June of 44’s Engine Takes to Water, and “Martin” throwing low-end haymakers. On The Sonora Pine’s debut LP, “Rungs” floats along percussion-free on Samara Lubelski’s violin, so it could have acted been a palette-cleanser for all of these math-rock workouts, or that version could have dropped weight from its original incarnation.

The sum of these parts is difficult to calculate. It’s hard to imagine the rigid “Before the Train” evolving much before another recording session with Bob Weston, but the two live versions of “Wurl” in the downloadable extras of Fifteen Quiet Years are noticeably different. Mueller and O’Neil would be well-represented vocally, but the fire of Noble’s “Shiner” and “Everyday World of Bodies” is missing. Would Noble write another blast of near-hardcore like “Shiner” or “Milk and Melancholy” to fill that void? No matter how close Rodan came to having the material necessary for a second album, it remains more mystery than reality, and Fifteen Quiet Years is the closest we’ll ever get to solving it.

In some ways, it’s bittersweet that Fifteen Quiet Years officially closes the door on Rodan. Even in an era where nearly every burnt bridge can seemingly be rebuilt, I never expected a proper Rodan reunion, but this is it. Jason Noble’s tragic passing in 2012 cut the roots of Rodan’s family tree. No more Shipping News, no more Rachel’s, no more Per Mission, no more Young Scamels. As thrilled as I am at the existence of Fifteen Quiet Years, since it provides the chance for more fans to hear “Sangre” and “Before the Train,” stunning album artwork from Jeff Mueller’s Dexterity Press, and one final gem for excavation in “Wurl,” it comes with an uncomfortable sense of finality. By no means should this point dissuade you from picking up Fifteen Quiet Years (or hearing Rusty for the first time, if by some accident you’ve made it this far without doing so), but know that a hard stop awaits.

Reviews: Ovlov's Am

Ovlov's Am

The fact that I've managed to review many of Exploding in Sound Records' releases to date without turning a review into a label profile demonstrates considerable restraint. It's an easy but now-overdue narrative; it's been a while since a label catered to my tastes so consistently, with many of its acts both drawing from and capably updating the '90s indie/alternative rock that I grew up on. Despite being geographically scattered (with label chief Dan Goldin based in New York City but a cluster of bands in Boston), its roster has the stylistic bleed that was a '90s scene trademark. (Quick case study: many of Champaign-Urbana's class of 1993—Hum, Love Cup, Poster Children, Honcho Overload—shared a fondness for heavy guitars, if not members and/or pedal chains. Contrast that commendable smear with the niche-oriented scene I encountered there at the turn of the millenium.) I've rarely caught only one of their acts on a bill, since Pile, Fat History Month, Grass Is Green, Speedy Ortiz, and Ovlov seem magnetically attracted to each other. And why not? They've all released excellent records that claw at each other for the highest placement on my year-end lists.

This narrative became unavoidable with Ovlov's Am; it's a family affair beyond the obvious distinction of the group's shared parentage. Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis contributes vocals to four tracks, three members of Grass Is Green add instrumentation, and Grass Is Green's Michael John Thomas III handles production duties. Yet Am is a different beast than Speedy Ortiz's Sports or Grass Is Green's Ronson, offering sludgy-yet-sweet blasts of amp-quaking grunge.

I often avoid using that genre tag, ever wary of what it wrought later in the decade. But Am's reference points steer clear of the radio-friendly unit-shifters that shall not be named (if you say Candlebox's name three times, they appear to a never-ending acoustic set in your living room), sticking with late '80s Dinosaur Jr., Mudhoney, and Nirvana. Steve Hartlett sounds like a dead-ringer for J. Mascis at times, making me wonder if he'll also look like a metal-shop instructor/wizard in twenty-five years. Not that I'm complaining; as much as I've enjoyed the Dinosaur Jr. reunion, Ovlov's "The Well" might very well do a superior job of channeling the energy of You're Living All Over Me. If there's a fight for the affectionate nickname of "Dinosaur Jr. Jr.," I'll side with Ovlov mucking it up with Living All Over Me/Bug sonics than Yuck's Green Mind/Where You Been evocations.

Am's feast of sludge doesn't supersede the songwriting or the melodies essential to repeated plays. Opener "Grapes" could succeed on its basement-show My Bloody Valentine riff alone, but its Hartlett/Dupuis duet is the highlight, offering sweetness and light where those elements . Dupuis's appearances on "The Well" and the aching, mid-tempo "Where's My Dini?" make an argument for her full-time employment in Ovlov, if not for, you know, Speedy Ortiz. The throttling "Nü Pünk" is a showcase for drummer Theo Hartlett, but his brother's melancholic vocal line cuts through the fury. While Steve Hartlett wisely avoids challenging Mascis to a soloing duel, stretching out with noise-wrangling outros on "Blue Baby" and "The Great Alligator" at the record's close proves cathartic. The only head-scratcher is "There's My Dini," which switches from half-spoken, half-ranting verses reminiscent of King Missle to a more familiar, melodic chorus. Nothing against the authors of "Jesus Was Way Cool," but for Ovlov, it's a mood shift away from their sweet spot.

It'll be a challenge to rank Ovlov's Am against Fat History Month's Bad History Month, Two Inch Astronaut's Bad Brother, and Speedy Ortiz's upcoming Major Arcana when December rolls around, but one I'm all too happy to face. Pausing the gravitational pull towards discussing their respective '90s touchstones for a merciful minute, my rankings will ultimately come less from which scuffed CDs they cite and more from their respective songwriting styles. Ovlov's forceful, tuneful melancholy stakes equal claim to both my car stereo and my headphones, so their peers, past and present, on Exploding in Sound Records need to watch out.

Reviews: Speedy Ortiz's Sports EP and "Ka-Prow" b/w "Hexxy"

Speedy Ortiz's Sports EP

It doesn’t surprise me that the members of Speedy Ortiz have tired of the ’90s-rock tag. Virtually every review of one of the group’s releases bundles together a few ’90s indie/alt-rock reference points: “Mary Timony fronting Archers of Loaf” (Pitchfork); “Belly, Throwing Muses and the Breeders, but also… Pixies, Chavez and Polvo” (); “Kudgel or Swirlies, or… Thingy” (Boston Globe); “influenced almost exclusively by the Matador Records roster circa ’95” (Stereogum); “early Sebadoh/Sentridoh, Helium’s pre-Pirate Prude singles, or a guitar-overdosed version of Liz Phair’s Girly Sounds demos” (this very site). It’s death by flattery—none of the references are used negatively, but the cumulative effect transports Speedy Ortiz from active status in 2013 to the back pages of a musty 1996 copy of Magnet. If not for the tremendous array of names dropped, these reviews would push Speedy Ortiz into the singular, purified nostalgia of a tribute act. Come see Chavest, Northampton’s most debonair Chavez cover band.

Here’s the rub: however exhausting the constant decade devolution must be for Speedy Ortiz, there may not be a better time to satiate the ’90stalgia urge. Consider how many ’90s staples have embarked on reunion tours and/or had their work reissued with glowing new liner notes in the past few years, or instead, try to think of a few who haven’t. These bands have returned to larger, more receptive audiences. Older listeners have either forgotten or forgiven any late-period slides. Newer fans are ecstatic about the once-implausible opportunity to see one of their favorites in concert. Yet comparatively few of these acts have released any new music, and those who have are typically feeding into the legend, not creating a new one. Superchunk’s Majesty Shredding, for example, was a perfect encapsulation of what fans hoped to hear from a new Superchunk record (i.e., their signature balance of melody and energy), but it doesn’t challenge any long-standing notions about their sound, except, perhaps, the idea that their period in the sun had ended before Come Pick Me Up and Here’s to Shutting Up. Both fans and critics are more receptive now to that era of bands (and bands influenced by that era) than any time since 1999. It’s not like there weren’t Pavement-influenced acts in the mid-’00s—the ever-infuriating name Tapes ’n Tapes assures me of that—but I don’t recall them being viewed with the same rose-colored glasses.

With full sympathy for Speedy Ortiz’s exhaustion over the ’90s tag, its constant application is largely to their benefit. And as I wrote in my review of their first three releases, Speedy Ortiz does a much better job recontextualizing this era than their peers. Part of the fun of Speedy Ortiz’s music is connecting the dots. Last year’s Sports EP practically authors a companion mix tape—there’s the Breeders’ combination of hooks and lust on “Basketball,” the pairing of pre-bed-shitting Veruca Salt allure and Polvo weirdness of the lurching “Indoor Soccer,” the surprising tenderness of Pavement’s “Here” successfully updated in “Curling,” a wordplay-driven Brighten the Corners-era anthem in “Silver Spring,” and an Unwound guitar freak-out to close out “Suck Buddies.” I’d enjoy Sports if these reminders were all it had to offer, but what makes it a worthy successor to the ’90s tradition of essential EPs is how the songwriting trumps the song-referencing. “Curling” isn’t an empty pointer to “Here,” it’s a surprisingly early embrace of adult life when remembering an impulsive relationship with an ex. Sadie Dupuis comes across as a compelling, charismatic lyricist, not the Wikipedia list of ’90s indie rock bands. Yes, Sports recalls that era, but it also transcends it.

What Speedy Ortiz offers over those stasis-cherishing reunions is unfettered, rapid evolution, a process that’s twenty years in the rearview for Pavement and Superchunk. There was a huge leap from the one-woman bedroom recordings of The Death of Speedy Ortiz / Cop Kicker EP to the polished alt-rock of “Taylor Swift” b/w “Swim Fan,” and the Sports EP demonstrates a comparable jump, with the four-piece edition offering newfound precision. They didn’t stop to catch their breath: in concerts following the EP’s release, the rhythm section downright pummeled “Indoor Soccer” and guitarist Matt Robidoux ended sets with noise-crazed antics.

Speedy Ortiz's Ka-Prow b/w Hexxy single

Speedy Ortiz’s newest single, “Ka-Prow!” b/w “Hexxy,” flexes this burgeoning musculature. As a precursor to their upcoming LP, Major Arcana (due 7/9 on Carpark Records, home to Cloud Nothings, Toro Y Moi, and Memory Tapes), this single bolsters two tracks from Speedy Ortiz’s solo-project beginnings with the full power of their current line-up. Gone is the rickety charm of the early versions; these definitive renditions blister the skin with huge, explosive riffs. “Ka-Prow!” even got a Buzz Bin-worthy video. Hopefully they’ll do me a solid and re-record Death of… highlight “Cutco” with similar aplomb.

Whether Speedy Ortiz becomes the Pavement of the ’90s, round two, is well beyond my soothsaying capabilities, but I can predict that your window to see them in the basement circuit and grab their early stuff on vinyl is closing fast. Being present for the ascent is much more exciting than overpaying for the reunion, and I’m much happier about catching Speedy Ortiz in an Allston basement than seeing Pavement trot out the hits in the cavernous Boston University hockey arena.

Reviews: Marnie Stern's The Chronicles of Marnia

Marnie Stern's The Chronicles of Marnia

Each Marnie Stern record has been shorter than its predecessor. 2007’s In Advance of the Broken Arm clocked in at 44:33, 2008’s This Is It… chopped its total down to 41:07, 2010’s masterful Marnie Stern lasted 33:58, and 2013’s The Chronicles of Marnia is a scant 32:46. Unless Andy Mueller of OhioGirl designed the album artwork, total running time isn’t something I pay attention to, but in this case it helped support a related observation: each successive Marnie Stern record has felt exponentially shorter.

I’d love to further substantiate that claim with a “notes per minute” statistic, since Stern’s maximalist approach has been similarly toned down over time, but unfortunately, rock criticism hasn’t embraced advanced statistics like baseball or hockey. It would soften the blow of a somewhat backhanded compliment—it’s gotten considerably easier to listen to Marnie Stern’s music. I could appreciate her debut, since the combination of Van Halen-on-speed finger-tapping, enthusiastic cheerleader vocals, and Zach Hill’s frenetic drumming was (and still is) unique. But aside from the comparatively straightforward “Every Single Line Means Something” and a few other tracks, its excesses were exhausting. I stayed with In Advance of the Broken Arm for two reasons: first, it was hard to deny the charismatic charge of her aesthetic; second, the occasional switch to chunky chords was the perfect elixir to the tapping barrage. This Is It… was a step in the right direction, offering tighter arrangements (“The Crippled Jazzer”) and better vocal hooks (“Ruler”), but I still only wanted an EP-length sampling of its tracks. That changed with Marnie Stern, a front-to-back success driven by deeply personal, emotional songwriting (“Transparency Is the New Mystery”) and even more chord-based riffs (“Gimme”). Hell, “The Things You Notice” is even a love ballad!

This history lesson leads me to another potential backhanded compliment about The Chronicles of Marnia: for the first time, a Marnie Stern album has left me wanting more. With new drummer Kid Millions slowing tempos and taking less of a splatter-painting approach to percussion, Stern peeling back layers of guitar, and new producer Nicholas Vernhes putting greater emphasis on Stern’s vocals, it speeds by, feeling every bit as short as its 32:46 runtime. There’s nothing exhausting about Marnia. It’s a pop album, or as close to a pop album as Stern will likely release. Its strangest elements are Stern’s background vocals, like the siren calls of “You Don’t Turn Down” or the “oh-ee-ee-oh” hook of “Year of the Glad,” and those are weirdly infectious. Every time I reach its end, I expect two or three more songs to suddenly appear. It’s disappointing when they don’t.

From an outside perspective, this shift toward the pop terrain of sparser arrangements and bigger hooks could be read as betraying Stern’s maximalist core. I see an alternate route to Marnia’s pop focus—with each release, her personality has come into clearer view, and the gradual receding of the finger-tapped storm has allowed this change to occur. It was simultaneously her sonic signature and a defense mechanism, covering for her self-doubt. “The Things You Notice” was a literal revelation; without Hill’s presence, Stern’s surprisingly hopeful sentiment takes center stage. (I should have seen it coming with her irony-free cover of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”) There’s something profoundly endearing about Stern’s autobiographical tendencies—she’s desperate to succeed on her terms. Like a well-made sports drama, I find myself cheering for the protagonist. (Still won’t wear a “Win Marnie Win” shirt, though.) No wonder why she made a Rocky-themed video.

This doubt-conquering trend is amplified on the self-motivational Marnia. It either recognizes her second-act hurdles or searches for the intestinal fortitude to overcome them. She pairs the album’s most fist-pumping riff with “I am losing hope in my body” on “You Don’t Turn Down,” pleads “Don’t you want to be somebody?” on “Noonan,” rolls the title of “Nothing Is Easy” over and over, declares that “Bittersweet you’ve got to go” on the title track, and affirms “Down and deep I’ll never stop / Won’t give this thing, won’t give it up” in the triumphant closer “Hell Yes.” The most pivotal track is the dramatic, piano-laced “Proof of Life,” which looks to the heavens for a sign, but knows its shift from “I am nothing / I am no one” to “I am something / I am someone” can only come from within. Who knows if she would have come to that conclusion without abandoning the safety net of maximalist finger-tapping.

Returning to potentially backhanded compliment number two, the fact that The Chronicles of Marnia leaves me wanting more is both confirmation of her artistic evolution and the new LP’s lone demerit. I won’t deny that it pales slightly to Marnie Stern, which left me fully satiated with only a minute and twelve seconds of additional runtime (and approximately 58% more notes). But offering a lighter, more inviting companion to that album isn’t a bad thing. Wanting more isn’t a bad thing, especially when three albums ago, I routinely opted for less. I stuck with In Advance of the Broken Arm and This Is It… on the chance that Stern would take this exact course. Now that she has, it’s a relief to simply enjoy the songs without speculating where her sound might be two albums from now. Don’t know, don’t care—I’m in regardless. Maybe she’ll return to her maximalist roots with renewed focus, maybe she’ll strip down the last vestiges of that sound. All I know is that some variation of a self-titled album—Marnie Stern’s Private Parts, perhaps—will remain incredibly appropriate, since her personality will undoubtedly shine through whichever artistic direction she chooses.

Reviews: Grass Is Green and Two Inch Astronaut's Split Dicks

Grass Is Green and Two Inch Astronaut's Split Dicks

When it comes to seven-inch singles, I’m either complaining about their steadily escalating prices or wishing more bands would release them. Let me be more specific: release them properly. Charging eight bucks for two songs—one from the album people already own, one that’s more likely an alternate take, demo, or tossed-off cover than a must-hear rarity—is testing my faith in the format. If the price can’t come down, increase the value. Reward the faithful with a non-album single like Wire, The Smiths, or Stereolab did. Put something fun down on wax, like Wye Oak’s covers of “Strangers” and “Mother.” Or share space with another excellent band and see who comes out on top.

This single falls into the last category, with Boston’s Grass Is Green and Silver Spring, Maryland’s Two Inch Astronaut each making their vinyl debuts. With each band offering two exclusive songs, Split Dicks can be politely excused from the above discussion of value. The only thing that would have stopped me from recommending this single is if they’d chosen the cover from a Google Image Search of “split dicks,” and fortunately you only get the mental picture (which still makes my crotch recoil).

I’m well acquainted with Grass Is Green—I would have slotted Ronson in my top five LPs of 2012 if I actually got around to, you know, doing one. In classic seven-inch logic, these songs are solid enough to have made Ronson, but wouldn’t necessarily have fit into its flow. “Tasty Hot Air Balloon” struts like an aggro Polvo before breaking into an all-too-short anthemic finale. “You’re Yawning All Over My Baby” flies out of the gate with the spastic energy of their live sets, then runs some math-rock trials. I’d be happy to encounter either song on one of the group’s set lists.

Two Inch Astronaut appear to have been raised on the same steady diet of Dischord/DeSoto post-punk as Grass Is Green, but chose a less frenetic, more melodic direction. These songs are so up my Jawbox/Faraquet/Candy Machine alley that I’m kicking myself for not making it out to a house show in January to see both bands. Hopefully I’ll get another chance this spring after their upcoming album, Bad Brother, comes out.

I know the idea behind split singles is to introduce bands to their respective audiences, but I’d be glad if Split Dicks became a yearly series. Maybe next time Grass Is Green goes mid-tempo and Two Inch Astronaut gets spastic, maybe they cover each other’s songs, maybe they cover DC classics. Just keep away from GIS results for the covers.

Reviews: Fat History Month's Bad History Month

Fat History Month’s Bad History Month

Here’s what I think of, in rough order, when the topic of two-person rock bands comes up: 1. Bands who took the “We only have two members” restriction as a dare to make the most noise possible (godheadSilo, Lightning Bolt, Hella, Big Business). 2. Married or once-married couples banking that romantic chemistry translates to musical chemistry (The White Stripes, Mates of State, The Like Young, and, even though it feels strange to mention them here, The Evens). 3. Holy shit The Black Keys are popular. 4. Watching post-grunge survivalists Local H from the back of The Highdive in Champaign with the evening’s now-implausible opening act The Dismemberment Plan. 5. When you name a band Drums and Tuba, you can’t add a guitarist. Come on. 6. Don’t make me talk about The Dresden Dolls, please don’t. 7. Wait, did I really forget Wye Oak until now?

Somehow I’m not surprised that one of my favorite current acts slipped from memory in favor of archetypes, improbable arena acts, and gimmicks. When I think of Wye Oak, I focus on the songs first, then sometime later the image of drummer Andy Stock playing keyboard bass lines with his left hand will pop into my head, reminding me that they lack a proper bassist. I don’t think of them as a two-piece because there are more important things to think about. Make no mistake, it’s a compliment.

A few months from now, after Fat History Month’s sophomore LP Bad History Month has enjoyed an extended residency on my turntable, I’ll be paying the Boston-based duo the same compliment. Right now I’m busy marveling at the ways guitarist Jeff Meff fills the mix, balancing folk finger-picking, knotted chords, agitated strafing, and panoramic melodies. You might not even realize there’s only one guitarist at work; the first time I saw them, I abandoned an obstructed-view perch for confirmation. Once you do, however, you’ll quickly forget it in the best way possible.

Bad History Month steers between the restless coming-of-age seen on Modest Mouse’s Lonesome Crowded West and the careful arrangements of American Football, a compelling combination of nerves and calm. On a micro level, the band excels at subtle dynamic shifts, the (relatively) quiet but distinct ebbs and flows that ’90s math/post-rock groups explored when avoiding the line at the crescendo rollercoaster.

Without a full lyric sheet on hand, it’ll be tough to make the case for how well Meff tempers humor with sadness and vice versa, but the fact that “I Ate Myself and Want to Die” and “Bald History Month” are anything but novelty songs should help. (An April Fool’s Day release date—that’s less help.) For every ponderous line like “I feel my fear moving away / In me from time, for a billion years” in “Bald History Month,” you’ll also get chuckles from “We live in a world where toilets flush themselves / But here’s good news, people like to live dangerously” in “The Future.” If Bad History Month is their tragic record, at least they’ve found the brighter corners of depression.

Befitting a record that deserves to be pored over, physical copies of Bad History Month arrive with a 30-page comic book.

The Haul: Rex / Songs: Ohia Split Single

Rex and Songs: Ohia split single

I stopped writing about every record I buy—okay, stopped attempting to write about every record I buy—a few years ago. Reasons abound: I was buying too many records to keep up; an OCD trigger in my brain wanted me to post them in chronological purchase order, even though I wrote about them semi-randomly; I figured few people cared to read about dusty Wire-related records or obscure ’90s math-rock singles; I wanted to spend time writing about more recent releases from artists needing support right now. In short, I did what I’m best at—come up with reasons not to do something.

In hindsight, the true value of this practice was not allowing myself to pick my spots, which, as proven by my incredibly sporadic writing, is something I can do to the extreme. Covering a broader range of reactions than “Hey, this album is fantastic, here’s why” engaged me—I could go off on tangents more freely, and even occasionally make a point, whether it was about that particular record or not.

To that end, my desire to write about this Rex / Songs: Ohia split single (a February pick-up from Chicago’s Reckless Records) isn’t based in a need to comment on these two songs. I can do that, too: Rex’s “Untitled” was the final breath of the slow-core/alt-country act, with only singer/guitarist Curtis Harvey remaining from the group’s usual line-up. He’s backed here by mercenary violinist Joan Wasser (Dambuilders, Mind Science of the Mind, Joan as Policewoman, Those Bastard Souls, etc.) and Josh Mattews. It’s a pleasant, if not particularly memorable coda to the three LPs, one EP, and two singles that preceded it. I’d rather put on the gut-wrenching “Nothing Is Most Honorable Than You” from their self-titled debut or anything from their 1996 sophomore LP C, but my completist urges are satiated by hearing their last song. The flip features an alternate version of “How to Be Perfect Men” from Songs: Ohia’s 1999 LP Axxess & Ace, a more ragged rendition that likely holds the same completist appeal to Jason Molina fans as “Untitled” does to Rex fans.

The Songs: Ohia side of this single exemplifies a statement I’ve found myself saying a lot lately: “I never got into them.” I don’t use that phrase dismissively; I pick my spots as a listener, too, and sometimes I miss the natural opening for a record to enter my collection. I can remember two distinct opportunities in this instance: first, Epitonic provided “Captain Badass” and “Lioness” back when free MP3s were a rare commodity; second, I vaguely recall seeing Magnolia Electric Company at the Intonation Festival (the precursor to the Pitchfork Music Festival) in 2005. Neither instance prompted further exploration.

It’s plausible that I would have gotten into Songs: Ohia from “How to Be Perfect Men (Version)” alone, provided that I didn’t file the vinyl into the deep recesses of one of my shoeboxes-turned-singles-bins after a few spins. But news of Jason Molina’s recent passing placed an uncomfortable urgency on finally hearing his work. Reading the devastated reactions of Molina’s fans and friends prioritized Songs: Ohia and the Magnolia Electric Company above other acts in my listening pile. I can understand the impulse to a certain extent, since these eulogies crystallized how much his work meant to my peers, but there’s something off-putting about wanting to catch up with an artist because they’re no longer with us. That’s the impetus for me finally checking a band out? It doesn’t feel right to use a collective mourning period to determine the best entry points for an artist’s catalog.

But that’s precisely what I did. When friends posted lists of their favorite Molina records, I picked Axxess & Ace, The Lioness, and Magnolia Electric Company as gateways. It didn’t shock me that these albums resonated with me; I may not have gotten into Songs: Ohia in the previous fifteen years, but I certainly knifed through the back catalogs of stylistic kin Will Oldham and Bill Callahan during that time. I immediately felt the presence of Arab Strap members on The Lioness. If I’d found an irritating element, at least I could say “This is why it took me so long to get into these records,” but nothing stuck out. (Not that now would be the best time to say, “And you know what I found out? These records are completely overrated.”) Instead, I’m left wondering why I hadn’t done this earlier.

The best way to extract myself from this hypothetical feedback loop is to imagine the tables turning on this single. What if I’d picked it up as a Jason Molina completist with only a vague familiarity with Rex? (No offense to Rex, but I suspect that’s a more common scenario.) Without the hard stop of Molina’s death weighing on me, I would not feel the same urgency to catch up with Curtis Harvey’s music. Rex would just be another entry in the Magnet-approved, Sebastian-ignored list of 1990s indie rock.

The core truth of “I never got into them” is that “them” contains multitudes. If I made a top ten list of my most glaring musical oversights, unintentional or not, Songs: Ohia wouldn’t have made the honorable mentions. I’m equally amazed and skeptical when someone seems to have heard everything, since I don’t understand how anyone would have the time and energy for that gargantuan task. There have always been more bands, there are always more bands, there will always be more bands. All it takes is a look at Spin’s recent top 100 alternative records of the 1960s to confirm my massive blind spots. I feel guilty about not hearing Jason Molina’s music earlier, but if there’s any era of music I’m arguably too familiar with, it’s turn of the millennium independent rock. I’ll catch up on Songs: Ohia after the fact, with my listening colored by Molina’s health troubles and death, but other lacunae will only grow larger in the meantime. If I can ever hope to make significant progress, I’m going to have to pick more spots.

Reviews: Julianna Barwick's "Pacing" b/w "Call"

Pacing b/w Call

In the ever-growing tower of records for which I’ve written a largely completed but ultimately unpublished review, Julianna Barwick’s The Magic Place ranks near the top. To my credit, I did get my act together to write 50 words for its placement as my favorite album of 2011, but that blurb lacked the real estate to explain my specific application of Barwick’s music. Since no one else will know that I’m repeating myself, allow me to explain it now.

When The Magic Place came out, I was having trouble falling asleep. In a very simple sense, too much was on my mind. I found that listening to a few ambient songs on my headphones was an immense help—I wasn’t falling asleep with earbuds still embedded, but after those songs, I was sufficiently decompressed that I could fall asleep quickly and calmly. The problem was finding the right songs for the task. So many favorites from the genre had caveats: Stars of the Lid’s music gradually accrues a devastating emotional resonance; Tim Hecker’s compositions are rife with tense dichotomies; Grouper offers unsolvable mysteries that are both beautiful and unsettling; too few of Brian Eno’s ambient masterworks resolve within a reasonable timeframe. I got significant mileage from The Dead Texan’s “The Struggle,” Grouper’s “Heavy Water (I’d Rather Be Sleeping),” and Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent),” but The Magic Place shuttled these songs off the decompression playlist.

It took the opposite arc to Stars of the Lid’s And Their Refinement of the Decline; whereas that album’s arrangements turned from polished drones to cutting chord progressions, the looped vocals of The Magic Place transformed from attention-grabbing siren calls to calmly mesmerizing choirs. (This process hasn’t happened for either of Barwick’s first two releases, 2006’s Sanguine and 2009’s Florine, which are worthy practice runs but too reliant upon coloring outside the lines to qualify as relaxing.) “Keep Up the Good Work” started out as the strangest song from The Magic Place, a layered invitation to run my ship aground, but evolved into a supremely comforting swell. After listening to a few tracks from The Magic Place, my mind would arrive at an anxiety-free locale, ready to peacefully drift off to sleep. It was a miraculous, wonderful gift. (It’s worth noting that after my daughter was born, I no longer needed this routine. Lulling ambient music is unnecessary in the presence of sheer exhaustion.)

Since The Magic Place, Julianna Barwick has explored different terrain. The Matrimony Remixes EP offered pleasant but inessential reworkings of “Vow” and “Prizewinning.” She collaborated with Ikue Mori on FRKWYS Vol. 6, which applied her ethereal vocals to glitch electronic compositions; paired with Helado Negro for Ombre’s Believe You Me, contributing as much live instrumentation as vocals to the full-bodied songs; and made worthy guest appearances on Koralleven’s celebratory “Sa Sa Samoa” and Sharon Van Etten’s superlative Tramp. But the “Pacing” b/w “Call” single marks a welcome return to The Magic Place.

It’s not a straight recapitulation of its predecessor’s successes—the fruit-covered piano of the cover image signals the aesthetic shift. “Vow” and “Flown” from The Magic Place utilized piano, but placed it as one piece among more prominent and more plentiful vocal loops. On this single, the reverb-heavy chords take equal footing to the vocal loops on “Pacing” and supplant them entirely on “Call.” It’s strange to hear a Julianna Barwick song devoid of singing, but “Call” finds remarkable depth in its simple lines.

Just like The Magic Place in 2011, no piece of music so far this (admitted young) year has grasped me so thoroughly as “Pacing” b/w “Call.” As long as it took me to elucidate my primary application for Barwick’s music, this single is on constant loop because it works in far more contexts than decompression.