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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I half-joked on Twitter last weekend that there should be a 22-year moratorium before writing about My Bloody Valentine’s M B V, exaggerating the vast difference between the wait to receive and the wait to critique. Naturally, it didn’t take long for the major outlets to disregard my edict. Some reviews rolled in Sunday morning—“I’ve listened to it three times and I was super high the first two but here goes”—before I even got a chance to hear the album. (Moral: Always bring your laptop on trips in case My Bloody Valentine follows through on their long-standing threat to finally release a new record.) Most took three or four days, like Pitchfork’s 9.1 Best New Music tag. Anything longer than that felt remarkably patient, like Chris Ott’s piece in Maura Magazine (subscription for iPhone/iPad only). By Friday, I was willing to break the edict myself for one simple reason: I wanted to write about M B V, even if finality of opinion is impossible now (or ever).
The central point that rang out to me, over and over, as I listened to M B V on repeat this week, was that it’s undeniably My Bloody Valentine. A significant percentage of my record collection owes intellectual royalties to Loveless—so many titles that extract a part of its appeal, cross-breed it with a newer movement, slavishly copy its technical approaches—but M B V reminded me more of what those bands lacked, not what they offered over this long-overdue return. That Kevin Shields’ guitar work can remain both inventive and familiar is a testament to the master, given how many others have explored his terrain. That Shields and Bilinda Butcher’s hushed vocal smears remain singularly intoxicating is an equal surprise, since that style was ripped off almost as often with far less notice. M B V initially stood out as a lazy title, but its shorthand is appropriate; at last, the other side of the “MBV meets” equation is empty.
Yet MBV needs to be (re)defined. Debbie Googe’s interview with Drowned in Sound can be read as liner notes for M B V, confirming that she didn’t play on the album, that the drums have been “added and then taken off at least once” (with Jimi Shields getting the first crack before Colm O’Ciosoig redid them), that Bilinda Butcher came in to do vocals but nothing else. All of these facts seem like eye-openers until I confirmed that virtually every one is a repeat of Loveless’s recording. Googe didn’t play on that record, Butcher didn’t play guitar on that record, O’Ciosoig’s drums were a mix of loops and live performance. (He did author the soundscape “Touched.”) Loveless took nineteen studios, whereas M B V took twenty-two years, but at their essence, they’re both Kevin Shields solo albums.
My main issues with M B V stem from this point—the drums are often seem like an afterthought, the bass is frequently challenging to locate. There’s a buried percussive pulse and a vague bass throb to the womb-like opener “She Found Now,” but if you finish hearing the song with anything other than the vocal coos or the careful swoops of the guitar in your memory banks, you must be Debbie Googe or Colm O’Ciosoig preparing for the next round of tour dates. The mid-tempo shuffle of “Only Tomorrow,” “Who Sees You,” and “If I Am” could pass for an under-rehearsed live band, but keyboard lullaby “Is This and Yes” only picks up a neighbor’s kick drum sound-check. “New You” is the sprightliest pop song on M B V and its up-front bass line is a major reason why. Much of the percussive attention on the album steers to the last three songs, which eschew the pretense of live drumming in favor of pounding (“In Another Way”) or swirling (“Wonder 2”) drum loops. This approach recalls Shields’ remix work in the late ’90s, which jumped on jungle and drum ‘n’ bass trends (see remixes of Mogwai’s “Mogwai Fear Satan” and Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater” for starters). The stuttering, headache-inducing “Nothing Is” marks the only point when one of Loveless’s descendents overshadows the legitimate follow-up for me; I’d rather hear the metallic repetition of Glifted’s Under and In (the side project of Hum guitarist Tim Lash).
It’s tempting to imagine M B V with a more prominent, more considered rhythmic foundation, but that impulse just redirects into the decades-old Loveless fan-fiction competition. If you want My Bloody Valentine with a sturdier, more forceful rhythm section, there are bands for that itch. If you want My Bloody Valentine with contemporary drum programming, there are bands for that itch. If you want My Bloody Valentine with no drums at all, there are bands for that itch. You can spend years—literally, I have spent years—tracking down those alternate permutations of MBV’s sound, and the most confounding aspect of M B V’s existence (reminder: a new My Bloody Valentine album actually exists) is reconciling decades of genetic experiments with the re-emergence of the real thing. Sometimes those experiments were successful, even to the point where other reviewers think My Bloody Valentine didn’t have to follow-up Loveless because the Lilys or Sugar or whoever else actually did.
I can understand if that roadblock cuts off some people from appreciating M B V, but repeating my central point, I’m overcome with relief that what I’m hearing is undeniably My Bloody Valentine. Even if “She Found Now” is a dream, it’s one I’ll feverishly try to document upon waking, but always fail to capture. “Who Sees You” lopes without urgency, but it’s to allow Shields’ woozy guitar lines proper room to sway. Yes, the lyrics of “If I Am” are nearly impossible to pinpoint, but that point doesn’t stop me from humming the vocal melody hours after hearing it. “In Another Way” may be propelled by a cyborg drummer, but its combination of aggressive riffs and floating melodies could outlast the throttling loops by hours without wearing thin. All of these moments reassert what My Bloody Valentine offers then and now, an inscrutable pairing of the vague and the specific, the tangible and the intangible.
Let me be perfectly clear, even if My Bloody Valentine themselves discourage the practice. M B V is neither Loveless’s equal nor superior. You don’t have to squint hard to see its flaws (and implying that they’re even present on Loveless can be seen as sacrilege). Unlike Loveless, it’s plausible that a few of My Bloody Valentine’s challengers surpassed M B V. But what they did not do was make M B V irrelevant or ineffectual. It still surprises, and not just through its mere existence. It still demands more listens from me, and not just because of its historical importance. It’s an album loaded with qualifying statements (“for a reunited band,” “for such a long layoff,” “for being from a different era”) that somehow sheds these statements. By the close of “Wonder 2,” I’ve stopped comparing M B V to my rolodex of descendants and focus only on the record at hand. That’s the achievement here, and it is by no means a minor one.
One final consideration: What if M B V opens the floodgates? Terrence Malick took twenty years to follow Days of Heaven with The Thin Red Line and has since been slowly accelerating his rate of output, with a shockingly large slate of projects on the horizon. That’s my desired result: Kevin Shields, ceaseless tinkerer, becomes Kevin Shields, creator of finished products. M B V’s existence in 2013 shocked me, but the release of two more My Bloody Valentine albums in the calendar year would not.
Approximately a minute and a half into my first spin of “Jesse’s Fashion Show,” the third song on Grass Is Green’s recently issued Ronson, I started getting the sense that the group made a quantum leap forward since 2011’s Chibimoon, like if my three-month-old daughter walked over to me and asked me to put on Fugazi’s Red Medicine. This feeling kept solidifying as the song continued and at exactly 3:13, it became a certainty: I wholeheartedly endorse whatever illegal riff-growth-hormone Grass Is Green imported from Mexico last year. They haven’t entirely lost the anxious angularity that appealed to me on Yeddo and Chibimoon, but the teasing nature of those albums—flashing a superb Polvo-meets-Faraquet passage in “Slow Machine,” then suddenly abandoning it—has been replaced by a new philosophy: write a great riff, then one-up it with a better one, then one-up it with a better one…
It’s a tall order to get past how smartly constructed “Jesse’s Fashion Show” is (the vocals dropping out midway through its four-minute runtime to prioritize the nimble lead exchanges, for one), but Ronson offers other expansions of Grass Is Green’s portfolio. “Panera” is the tightest, catchiest song they’ve written; it would have merited inclusion in nearly every mix tape I mailed out from 1997–2000. The slow-burning “Somebody’s Something” finds deeper catharsis with “It’s getting hard to ignite those kerosene eyes / Difficult for everyone else,” then allows Andy Chervenak’s vocals get overtaken by a pitch-perfect closing guitar part. The instrumental “Ruffleball” ends Ronson with satisfyingly bright interplay between the four members before fading to black. If you’d told me Grass Is Green had mastered any of these moves on their third album, I would have been impressed, but all of them? I’m still scratching my head.
It might sound like I’m disparaging Grass Is Green’s previous efforts, but it’s hard to go back to earlier records after a big leap. Returning to The Dismemberment Plan’s ! after Is Terrified proved largely impossible, I spent considerably less time with Smart Went Crazy’s worthy Now We’re Even after acquiring the superior Con Art, Shiner’s Starless felt like a dry run at a four-piece edition of Shiner after The Egg was birthed, et cetera. My question for Grass Is Green, now that they’ve written a score of guitar riffs I uncontrollably sing along to, is this: Where does Ronson fall in their evolutionary curve? Returning to the Dismemberment Plan comparison, is their Emergency & I coming up? That is what I’m so excited about: if they made this enormous leap for Ronson, imagine what could be next. Am I going to break my hands drumming on my steering wheel?
No pressure, guys.
There’s a distinct before and after for Northampton-based guitar rockers Speedy Ortiz. On last year’s Cop Kicker EP and The Death of Speedy Ortiz LP (both freely downloadable on BandCamp), guitarist/vocalist Sadie Dupuis did everything else, too, including “bass, drums, piano, cello, banjo, sound treatments, etc.,” with the end result often qualifying as endearingly ramshackle. In contrast, the “Taylor Swift” b/w “Swim Fan” single (available for a whopping dollar on BandCamp) features a full line-up, with guitarist Matt Robidoux, bassist Darl Ferm, and drummer Mike Falcone joining the fold, and the ’90s alt-rock polish of Boston-based producer Paul Q. Kolderie.
The sonic taste-test reminds me of two specific eras of ’90s indie rock. Cop Kicker/The Death of Speedy Ortiz are second-generation cassette dubs of a bedroom-recorded lo-fi solo project—think early Sebadoh/Sentridoh, Helium’s pre-Pirate Prude singles, or a guitar-overdosed version of Liz Phair’s Girly Sound demos. The inviting hooks of the highlights (“Speedy Ortiz,” “Thank You,” “Frankenweenie,” “Teething,” and particularly the key change in “Cutco”) deliver Dupuis’s sarcastic collisions of lust and violence. The combination reminds me of Mary Timony and Liz Phair’s glory days as the indie rock queens of beckoning with one hand and shoving away with the other. There’s filler here, just like on the original models back in 1992, but I’ve listened to “Cutco” more than enough times to make up for a few aimless companions. Plus, to repeat the obvious, it’s free.
The release dates says five months, but the sonics insist five years in ’90s indie rock time had passed before “Taylor Swift” b/w “Swim Fan” came out this March. With a full band and studio production in tow, the single recalls mid-to-late ’90s indie rock that unabashedly pushed hard for college radio play with big guitars, bigger melodies, and indie-rock referentialism. A specific comparison (that admittedly might be lost on 2012 listeners) is the Scottish group Urusei Yatsura, whose “Slain by Elf” from the Slain by Yatsura LP mined a similar merger of indie-rock culture with alt-rock production. (And yes, there is a difference between indie rock and alt-rock, goddamn it.) The chorus of “Taylor Swift” swaggers with newfound confidence and broader lyrical appeal (“Cuz now I got a boy in a hardcore band / I got a boy gets it on to Can / Then there's the boy sings those sad songs I like / I got too many boyfriends to see you tonight”) but I prefer the less-on-the nose sentiment of “Swim Fan,” which revisits the murkier lust of the earlier recordings. Both choruses have floated around my brain for weeks, especially the smeared syllable-play of “Hello magneto metal coney / You got bronze you found me out” in “Swim Fan.”
Speedy Ortiz isn’t alone in reviving ’90s indie and alt-rock, as a slew of recent bands—Yuck, The Joy Formidable, Cymbals Eat Guitars, etc.—has demonstrated a similarly genuine appreciation for the era, but what gets me about these releases is the specificity. There’s a key difference between sounding eerily like Where You Been and evoking memories of flipping through paper mail order catalogs (RIP Parasol Mail Order) and massive CD bins hoping to finally discover what some heralded but unfamiliar band actually sounded like, and Speedy Ortiz could pass for a great find in the latter scenario.
If you’re wondering how Speedy Ortiz will follow up “Taylor Swift” b/w “Swim Fan,” you don’t have to wait long. Exploding in Sound Records will issue the Sports EP on 10” vinyl in June, with the knotty guitar work and clean vocal hooks of “Silver Spring” out there as a teaser. (For a final ’90s indie-rock throwback, the EP’s title reminded me that Versus’s The Stars Are Insane had a working title of Meat, Sports and Rock.)
The Dead Texan, a seemingly one-off collaboration between Stars of the Lid’s Adam Wiltzie and visual artist Christina Vantzou, has gained a second life in 2011 with a full slate of connected titles. I’ve previously written about Sleepingdog’s With Our Heads in the Clouds and Our Hearts in the Fields, which sees Wiltzie working with Dead Texan guest vocalist Chantal Acda. More recently Kranky issued A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s self-titled debut, an inspired meeting of pianist Dustin O’Halloran and Wiltzie that features album art from Vantzou. O’Halloran’s 2011 solo album Lumiere includes Wiltzie on guitar, while Vantzou contributed visuals to his live shows and put together a mesmerizing video for “We Move Lightly.” Completing the circle, Vantzou has emerged from behind the projector with her solo debut on Kranky, No. 1, which explores semi-symphonic arrangements with the San Francisco-based Magik*Magik Orchestra.
That No. 1 explores somewhat similar terrain as The Dead Texan is both understandable and a bit of a surprise. Vantzou’s musical involvement in that album was limited to a few vocal spots and mellotron performances, with much greater emphasis placed on the accompanying DVD. But a 2007 collaborative tour between Sparklehorse and The Dead Texan encouraged her musical side (covered nicely in this interview with The Muse in Music), which resulted in the long-gestating No. 1. It would have been entirely plausible for Vantzou’s solo work to lean closer to the slow-drip pop of Chantal Acda’s more straightforward Sleepingdog tracks (or something entirely different), but if anything, No. 1 leans further away from the occasional dream-pop leanings explored on The Dead Texan into glistening, amorphous drone symphonies.
The process behind the album is enlightening. Vantzou spent three years writing and recording a demo version of No. 1 as 45-minute-long piece, which involved layering keyboard tracks, exploring her options in available synth samples, and pulling textures from voice, instruments, and records. She then brought the demo version to Minna Choi of the Magik*Magik Orchestra, who added live instrumentation and altered some arrangements. Finally, Adam Wiltzie helped mix the finished product, which merges Vantzou’s original textures with strings and horns.
This process isn’t hidden in No. 1. The layers are apparent, especially when one side of the equation overtakes the other. The synth textures of “Prelude for Juan” billow to the surface, while the affecting cello vibrato on “Super Interlude Pt. 2” cuts through the mix. More often there’s an uncertain balance between the two, with the smudged synth palettes sounding like distant echoes of the live instruments. It’s a telling difference from Stars of the Lid’s exquisitely mannered performances on And Their Refinement of the Decline and Kyle Bobby Dunn’s precisely refracted drones on Ways of Meaning; No. 1 matches their overall minimalism but not the starkness of its creation.
This difference means that No. 1 relies more on textural dynamics than most records in the Stars of the Lid universe. There are moments, especially in “Super Interlude Pt. 2” and “Your Changes Have Been Submitted,” that use dramatic chord changes to spine-tingling effect (a tried-and-true tactic in Wiltzie and McBride’s oeuvre), but more often emotion comes from hearing something emerge that you didn’t think was there, like the ghostly vocals in “Joggers.” No. 1 is an album of discovery for both composer and listener, a duality that’s often expressed but rarely rings as true or essential as it does here.
If Christina Vantzou’s solo debut and the three other Dead Texan-related records from 2011 aren’t enough to check out, Vantzou will follow up No. 1 with a remix album/DVD. I’m particularly interested to see how Vantzou the visual artist comments on Vantzou the burgeoning musician; videos for “Homemade Mountains” and “Prelude for Juan” gives an early taste of patterns overtaking colors. It will also be interesting to see if Vantzou’s future recordings maintain the same sense of discovery now that she’s more familiar with the processes, but that’s a debate for another year.
Fool, Redeemer (full stream here) is a semi-collaborative effort from two Toronto-based groups, blurring together the disorienting folk of Picastro and the ambient drone metal of Nadja. The LP is split evenly between four shorter Picastro compositions and one typically mammoth Nadja track, but the smudging of their respective aesthetics forces each group outside of its usual comfort zone. Considering that neither Picastro nor Nadja is a group I listen to for comfort, I’ll chalk that up as a positive.
Picastro’s half of Fool, Redeemer picks up the looser structure of Nadja songs. Picastro’s four LPs offer their share of drifting, but here the vocals are pushed to the periphery. Opening instrumental “Skullduggery” doesn’t feature any direct involvement from Nadja, but it’s easy to hear that group’s threatening rumble encroaching on Picastro’s usual terrain. “Fire Perfect” is built on the woozy sawing of Liz Hysen’s violin and Nick Storring’s cello, but Nadja’s Aidan Baker adds texturally appropriate bowed guitar. Hysen’s muffled vocals appear briefly near the end of the song, but they’re ushered out by the song’s concluding pizzicato. The wandering “Darnia” dwells mostly on Brandon Miguel Valdivia’s mbira melody during its seven-minute trek. Picastro’s final track, “A New Soul’s Benediction,” visits more traditional territory for the group with Hysen’s weary vocals and acoustic arpeggios leading the way, but it’s a cover of a Static Films song. The absence of a Hysen dreamscape like “Winter Notes,” “Sharks,” or “Hortur” makes the emphasis on texture here even more apparent.
Nadja’s “Venom” reminds me of a historical reimagining of existing source material, like Alien set in the Industrial Revolution. The set-up’s different, with acoustic guitars (including Hysen’s), audible vocals, and Valdivia’s wavering mbira supplanting the pedal-driven drones that curled into Thaumogenesis and Radiance of Shadows. But these unfamiliar accents are delivered by familiar archetypes; it doesn’t take too long for “Venom” to lurch forward into heavier, louder terrain. And whatever era Alien is set in, you know it won’t end well for the majority of the cast, especially after 23 minutes of Nadja’s drone violence.
Thanks to the smearing of styles and cross-pollination of personnel, Fool, Redeemer holds together well as a single piece. I hesitate recommending it as a starting point for Picastro, however, since the textural, loosely structured compositions here aren’t as gripping as the eerie Metal Cares. Nadja’s catalog offers few typically inviting entry points aside from the 2009 covers record The Sun Always Shines on TV (which features massive, impossibly slow renditions of My Bloody Valentine’s “Only Shallow,” Codeine’s “Pea,” Elliott Smith’s “Needle and the Hay,” and others), so the 23-minute “Venom” is a good sign (warning?) of what you’ll get, initial acoustic guitars excepted. Even if you start with Metal Cares and Thaumogenesis, Fool, Redeemer is worth circling back to hear.