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Reviews: The Life and Times' The Life and Times

The Life and Times' The Life and Times

The recent vinyl reissue of Shiner’s mammoth Lula Divinia was a welcome marker of my twentieth year of listening to Allen Epley’s music. Whereas many other musicians in my circa-1997 heavy rotation have either lost my interest or lost their commitment, Epley has been a model of creative consistency with Shiner and The Life and Times. Lineups have shifted, aesthetics have evolved from Midwestern math-rock to sinewy shoegaze, yet the touchstones of Epley’s craft remain resolute: strong vocal melodies, often tinged with melancholy; slyly complex arrangements punctuated with immensely satisfying riffs; and a rhythm section with its own gravitational pull.

With their fifth, eponymous LP, The Life and Times has surpassed its primary predecessor in both duration and output. After switching rhythm sections for 2005’s debut LP Suburban Hymns, the trio of Epley, bassist Eric Abert (Ring, Cicada), and drummer Chris Metcalf (The Stella Link) has remained stable (aside from a brief dalliance with Traindodge’s Rob Smith) and has their approach locked down. Records lean in different directions—the shoegaze sonics of 2006’s The Magician EP, the cinematic scope of 2009’s Tragic Boogie, the brass-tacks immediacy of 2012’s No One Loves You Like I Do, the melodic surges of 2014’s Lost Bees—but each fits firmly within the group’s catalog as a whole. Both last year’s all-covers Doppelgänger EP (worth the download) and this self-titled LP operate in a middle ground of these leanings, assured of their stylistic parameters.

Reliability doesn’t make for a particularly sexy narrative—“Excellent Band Continues to Be Excellent”—but the songwriting on The Life and Times earns the group another long-term residence in the aforementioned heavy-rotation pile. Its bookends are the album’s longest and strongest tracks, each mining a familiar Epley lyrical motif: “Killing Queens” explores the thin line between adoration and obsession with falsetto verses and a roaring, slide-enabled chorus riff, while “We Know” sees midlife ennui haunted by creeping dread, as spaced-out chimes give way to Chris Metcalf’s pummeling outro. “Dear Linda” emerges from its shoegaze cocoon to find bracing clarity via the rhythm section. The colossal bridge riff of “Group Think” recalls Shiner’s finest moment, the ascendant mid-song interplay of “The Situationist.” “Out Thru the In Door” splits the difference between slippery post-punk verses and a sing-along chorus worthy of the Zeppelin smirk in its title. Abert leads the practically dance-ready “T=D/S,” his bass flipping between notes before opening up in the swirling chorus. The alternately dreamy and anthemic “I Am the Wedding Cake” undercuts its romantic overtures with a striking inclusion of “I don’t know you” in the chorus. Only the languid breather “Falling Awake” fails to leave much of an impression, but it does clear the deck for the pulsing instrumental “Dark Mavis.” Nine songs in a tight forty-one minutes, with each song inhabiting its logical residence in the running order.

It would honestly be easier if The Life and Times had a dramatic narrative, if Allen Epley became a hermit after The Egg and reappeared sixteen years later with a long-overdue reminder of what made his music compelling in the first place. But I’ll take the commitment to a regular release schedule and to the road, I’ll take the stack of worthy releases that have maintained my interest in that span. Whether The Life and Times sifts out as the finest in their catalog is up for debate—it’s certainly in the running—but the best thing about the group’s discography is that convincing cases can be made for virtually all of their albums.

Concert Reviews: The Life and Times, Deleted Scenes, and Tired Old Bones at O'Brien's Pub

The Life and Times live at O'Brien's Pub

I don’t have any Deadhead days in my past, so my history of seeing the same band multiple nights in a row in different cities is limited to DeSoto Records acts: the Dismemberment Plan (11/11/99 in Chicago, 11/12/99 in Champaign), Juno (8/23/01 in Champaign, 8/24 in St. Louis, both with Ted Leo), and Shiner (10/19/01 in Chicago, 10/20/01 in Champaign). This weekend I added a fourth former DeSoto group to the list when I caught The Life and Times at O’Brien’s Pub in Allston, MA, on Friday and The Loft in Poughkeepsie, NY, on Saturday. They were finishing up a week-long East Coast tour in advance of their 2012 LP No One Loves You Like I Do.

The lineup for the Allston show started with Tired Old Bones, a local four-piece who make distorted garage rock with alt-country and blues overtones. Vocalist/organist Bridget Nault supplies the make-or-break elements in her emphatic delivery and rangy Hammond leads, and for the most part, I leaned “make” over “break.” (Never drifting into Doors territory helped their case.) They have one 7” under their belts—the exquisitely packaged “Country Circus” b/w “Do Not Disturb”—and hearing those songs on BandCamp offers the differentiation between the guitar and bass parts that wasn’t always present in the live mix.

Deleted Scenes live at O'Brien's Pub

Mirroring the excellent 2009 billing that first introduced me to the group, Deleted Scenes hit the stage before The Life and Times. The DC band’s DNA features both the post-punk of the Dismemberment Plan and Medications and a healthy dose of lush indie pop. The difference between their recorded material and their live performances has been the balance of these sides. Last time the absorbing performances of Birdseed Shirt material like “Mortal Sin” and “Turn to Sand” made their recorded counterparts sound muted. The recently released Young People’s Church of the Air is a superior album that uses its production tricks to amplify what’s going on in the songs rather than deflect their effects. They still turn up the DC knob with more immediate live renditions of “Baltika 9” (video), “What an Awesome Backhanded Compliment,” and personal favorite “English as a Second Language” (live video), but the gap between record and stage is less of a pale imitation and more of a complementary experience. I’ll say more about Young People’s Church of the Air sometime soon; ordering your own copy will allow you to play along at home when I do.

Skipping ahead to cover the other acts on the Poughkeepsie bill, I got there in time to catch local trio Winterlong, who are apparently unaware of the Swedish power metal group of the same name or not afraid of them. The Poughkeepsie version is a mix of heavy rock, ’90s emo (the Mineral kind, not the Get-Up Kids variety), and math-rock with dual vocals, heavy guitars, and extended jams. Their heart’s in the right place, but everything needs to be tightened up: shorter jams, clearer vocal melodies, etc. Worth keeping in mind for when their record eventually comes out. You can hear a few songs: "Queen Elizabeth III" and "Fishnet."

Fellow locals Take One Car closed out the Poughkeepsie show, bringing a blend of atmospheric post-hardcore that brought to mind At the Drive-In playing a set with Mars Volta’s pedal boards. Sure enough, Take One Car did a cover set of At the Drive-In songs last year. I did appreciate the balance between screamo vocals and digital delayed instrumental passages—they never drifted too long or wore out their energy.

The Life and Times live at O'Brien's Pub

These two shows marked the ninth and tenth times I’ve seen The Life and Times live, putting me one away from matching the times I caught Shiner. When I think back to those Shiner sets, my favorite were in the spring and summer of 2001 when they debuted material from the forthcoming The Egg. Nothing against the recorded versions of “The Egg” and “The Simple Truth,” but getting to know those songs live through Shiner’s militant touring schedule was a true treat. The Life and Times’ upcoming third LP, No One Loves You Like I Do, is due 1/17/2012 on SlimStyle, a new music imprint from Comedy Central, and these two shows made those months even harder to endure.

In addition to cuts from Tragic Boogie (“Let It Eat,” “Old Souls,” and an impressive rendition of “Pain Don’t Hurt”), The Magician EP (“The Sound of the Ground” in Allston), and Suburban Hymns (“My Last Hostage,” “Running Redlights”), The Life and Times trotted out at least four new songs over the course of the two shows. “Day IX” (live video) was my favorite, driven by Eric Abert’s nasty bass line and a strong vocal melody from Allen Epley. “Day II” (live video), which appeared on the group’s 7” from earlier this year, stretches out live and gains considerable muscle mass. “Day I” (live video) might be most melodic of the batch, at least until it hits its spiraling conclusion. They played one more new song at the Allston show, “Day XII.”

Key changes in The Life and Times since Tragic Boogie help structure and color the new material. Rob Smith of Traindodge and Roma 79 joined up on keyboards and second guitar, a move that adds depth to the songs and also frees up Eric Abert to focus on muscular bass lines instead of multitasking to flesh out the mix. Epley and Abert are now located in Chicago, which means that No One Loves You Like I Do was written and recorded during trips down to Matt Talbott’s Earth Analog studio rather than in Epley’s old home studio. Judging from these songs, I predict No One Loves You Like I Do will trade some of Tragic Boogie’s painstaking overdubs for more chiseled arrangements. If “Day IX” is any indication, I am all for this new direction.

The Life and Times live at O'Brien's Pub

One thing I haven’t stressed is how impossibly loud The Life and Times were at O’Brien’s Pub on Friday. I’m used to having butterflies in my stomach from those Shiner shows, but I can’t recall a set where ear plugs were no match for the wall of sound coming at me. If you want to clear out your sinuses, see a normally loud band on the pocket-shaped stage of O’Brien’s.

The Life and Times will tour again next year once No One Loves You Like I Do, and I’m waiting with bated breath for both the album and a fresh set of east coast dates. They only have two booked at the moment: an opening slot for Hum’s sold-out reunion show in Kansas City in October and a killer bill with J. Robbins’ Office of Future Plans in Chicago in December, so if you’re in, near, or aware of those cities (and can shiv someone for tickets to the Hum gig), go see them. In the meantime, remember to grab “Day II” b/w “Day III” and a copy of Deleted Scenes’ excellent Young People’s Church of the Air.

Reviews: The Life and Times' "Day II" b/w "Day III"

The Life and Times' 'Day II' b/w 'Day III'

Has it really been twelve years since Allen Epley of The Life and Times / Shiner released new music on seven-inch vinyl? 1999 is when the superb “Semper Fi” b/w “A Sailor’s Fate” came out on DeSoto, part of a banner year for the label which also included Juno’s This Is the Way It Goes & Goes & Goes, Burning Airlines’ Mission: Control!, the Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I, and Faraquet’s “The Whole Thing Over” b/w “Call It Sane.” (Kim Coletta got a lot of my money that year.) I understand the drastic dip in interest in seven-inch singles during that span, but as I’ve noted before, Shiner excelled in the format. What I wouldn’t give for a seven-inch of the Japanese bonus tracks from The Egg (“Dirty Jazz” and “I’ll Leave Without You”) or the group’s cover of My Bloody Valentine’s “Only Shallow.” Seriously, I’ll probably dream about finding these items tonight.

With The Life and Times’ home studio all geared-out, it makes sense that Epley returns to trickling out a few new songs as they’re ready. Sometime later this year, The Life and Times will follow up 2009’s Tragic Boogie with their third full-length, but in the interim, they’ve issued “Day II” b/w “Day III” through Hawthorne Street Records (who’ve pressed vinyl editions of Suburban Hymns, The Magician, and Tragic Boogie). It marks the debut of the four-piece version of the group, having added Robert Culpepper Smith of Traindodge, Riddle of Steel, and Roma79 as on marimba (and keyboards, if these songs are any indication).

So how do “Day II” and “Day III” stack up with The Life and Times’ previous releases? Quite well: this single is a welcome, recommended return to (seven-inch) form. The former is an atmospheric rocker with Epley repeating “Nothing fools me” as the song shifts from a bass-heavy groove into a racing, riff-driven chorus. The latter calms things down considerably, pairing strummed acoustic guitars with woozy synth lines. The lyrics are intriguingly vague—“They said that mistakes were made / The very same mistakes we made / And history will eat itself”—fitting the song’s disorienting feel. Both of these songs rely on texture, but the strong riff of “Day II” and the lyrics of “Day III” provide stable footing.

Will these songs make the upcoming full-length? My guess is no. They stand alone nicely, perhaps acting as a bridge from Tragic Boogie to The Life and Times’ next album like Shiner’s “Sleep It Off” b/w “Half Empty” did between Lula Divinia and Starless. With any luck, The Life and Times has “Day IV” and “Day V” in the can, ready to hit colored wax in the fall after the LP’s out.

The Haul: The Life and Times and Deleted Scenes at Great Scott, 4/19/2009

It’s clear from my nearly non-existent concert photography feed that I’ve cut down greatly on the number of shows I see each year, but it’s hard for me to pass up seeing one of Allen Epley’s bands. Between Shiner (eleven times) and The Life and Times (eight times), I’ve seen Epley nineteen total times in eight different cities (St. Louis, Chicago, Champaign, Indianapolis, Newport, KY, Kansas City, New York, Boston). The biggest difference between this concert and their opening slot for the Hum reunion show in January was my familiarity with their new album, Tragic Boogie, and the highlights of that record sounded great. Still no “Mea Culpa” or “A Chorus of Crickets,” but they’ve got to plug the new wares, which I discuss at length below. Short take: behind Lula Divinia, The Egg, and Suburban Hymns, but still worth checking out.

I was running late the night of this concert and missed Constants, whose excellent “Passage” was leaking out onto Harvard Ave. as I entered Great Scott. Unfortunately, it was the last song of their set. I was looking forward to hearing some material from their upcoming album The Foundation, The Machine, The Ascension, but I’ll have to wait for the 3LP release on Mylene Sheath, which ships in late June. Six feet of artwork and two choices of vinyl color for pre-orders, so get in line.

I did get to hear the excellent Deleted Scenes for the first time, and damned if they didn’t put on a great show. Hard to pin them down to a single sub-genre, but the Dismemberment Plan, Talking Heads, indie pop, and even some math-rock came up during the set, never as a singular influence. Singer Dan Scheuerman has a captivating stage presence and their songs are even better live. I wouldn’t be surprised if their next record pushes them into headlining slots across the country, but I grabbed their debut full-length, Birdseed Shirt, and talked to Scheuerman after the show.

63. Deleted Scenes – Birdseed Shirt CD – What Delicate, 2009 – $8

Deleted Scenes' Birdseed Shirt

Deleted Scenes put on such a convincing performance that I had no choice but to pick up their debut full-length, Birdseed Shirt, on the loathed compact disc format. (It does not look like an LP is in the works, but my purchase of an album on CD almost assures it an eventual vinyl pressing.) Does Birdseed Shirt measure up to their live set? No, but it’s still a compelling album. There’s a considerable amount of production depth on these songs, but I’d argue that a few of the tricks (keeping vocals on one channel, for example), detract from the power of the songwriting. I keep meaning to give this album a few front-to-back spins, but I usually get stuck on highlights like the abrasive “Mortal Sin,” the gliding, melodic “Ithaca,” and the dourly triumphant “Turn to Sand.” They’ll be at TT the Bear’s on July 3rd, and I might just have to use that concert as an excuse to leave the house. Those live YouTubes are whetting my appetite.

64. The Life and Times – Tragic Boogie LP – Hawthorne Street, 2009 – $10

The Life and Times' Tragic Boogie

My fondness for Allen Epley’s massive, math-rock-influenced rock can admittedly affect my ability to assess his groups’ albums immediately after release, so excuse this long build-up to the discussion of Tragic Boogie. I remember claiming that Shiner’s Starless (2000) was an improvement upon Lula Divinia (1997) in a Signal Drench review, an opinion motivated by the initial surge of new music from one of my favorite groups and the desire to cement Shiner as one of the groups the magazine got behind, especially in light of a vicious Pitchfork review (which is now gone from the site). In hindsight, Starless was an occasionally awkward transitional record, suffering from too much deference from Epley’s guitar and Paul Malinowski’s bass to the second guitar being added by Joel Hamilton and Josh Newton. Whereas Lula Divinia felt mammoth with just three members, Starless feels strangely thin at points with four. The album felt less challenging than Lula as well, with both Epley’s songwriting and new drummer Jason Gerkin taking a more straightforward approach. I know there was a version floating around—either demos or an early studio cut—with Tim Dow still in the group, but I’ve never come close to hearing it, so it may very well be an urban legend. I doubt a change in drummers would have made “Too Much of Not Enough” a better song, however.

Starless took a full three years after Lula to come out, in part due to label changes. The record was originally slated for the New York label Zero Hour, who’d put out Swervedriver’s 99th Dream and a few other semi-notable records, but they folded and left Shiner in the lurch. Was there major label interest in the group during this time as well? Who knows, but I suspect Epley, a music lifer, would not have minded some financial security. Starless ended up being released on Owned & Operated, run by Descendents/All drummer Bill Stevenson, but they didn’t feel a part of O&O like they did on DeSoto. It felt like a stopgap solution, much like Starless now feels like a stopgap record.

Thankfully their follow-up record, 2001’s The Egg rectified all of these concerns. Back on DeSoto Records, Shiner seemed dead set on pushing themselves to the fullest on The Egg, making a nastier (“Surgery”), more technically challenging (“The Egg”), more inspired album (“The Simple Truth”) than Starless. Jason Gerkin’s syncopated drumming on the title track seemed like a direct response to any fans who longed for Tim Dow’s deft work on “My Life as a Housewife.” I’d seen the group enough times leading up to the CD’s release to know that those songs would hold up. Eight years later, The Egg is essentially a 1B option to Lula Divinia’s 1A, since the latter feels a little more natural, less forced. The set list for their final show backs me up. Three songs from Splay, five songs for Starless, seven from The Egg (including Japanese bonus track “Dirty Jazz”), and seven from Lula Divinia (eight if you include “Sleep It Off”). Maybe the presence of original drummer Tim Dow at the show encouraged more Lula songs, but I trust Epley’s ability to assess the strength of his own material in the live setting.

Shiner’s farewell concert was a bittersweet send-off, but I never questioned why they broke up—The Egg pushed that group as far, as hard as it would go and there was no logical follow-up. Bringing in new collaborators and starting again made sense; so much sense Epley did it twice with The Life and Times. The John Meredith / Mike Myers line-up only lasted for The Flat End of the Earth EP, but the Eric Abert / Chris Metcalf line-up has now released two full-lengths and two EPs on four different labels. I discussed Suburban Hymns and The Magician when I picked them up on vinyl back in January, but it’s been three long years since the latter came out, stretched out by an extended label search. Sound like a familiar situation?

According to the painstaking liner notes, Tragic Boogie was initially conceived in April 2007 after a tour with the Appleseed Cast. That group’s Low Level Owl albums must’ve inspired the Life and Times’ home-recording impulse, since without a label footing the bill, only a home studio would allow Epley and company enough time to equal the Appleseed Cast’s experimentation-laden three weeks in the studio for that double-disc affair. After building a home studio and convening for several big sessions, they’d finished mastering the record in April of 2008. It took a year of label-searching before the record was released on the New York-based Arena Rock Recording Company. I’d like to think that two months is enough time to let Tragic Boogie sink in, so here goes.

Tragic Boogie is undoubtedly a home-recorded album, but not for the reason you might expect. No, it doesn’t sound thin in comparison to Suburban Hymns (recorded primarily at Matt Talbott’s Great Western Record Recorders by J. Robbins and Paul Malinowski) or The Magician (recorded at the Magpie Cage by J. Robbins). In fact, it sounds remarkably full, filled with bells and whistles like textural guitar overdubs, vintage keyboards, swirling background vocals. Epley states that they were aiming to make “the larger-than-life record we’d been hearing in our heads” and there’s no doubt that they succeeded in that aim. Tragic Boogie passes on the traditional rock template used for Suburban Hymns songs like “Running Red Lights,” “Coat of Arms,” and “Charlotte St” in favor of the explorative shoegaze approach of “Thrill Ride” and “My Last Hostage.” But how it comes through as a home-recorded album (much like compatriots National Skyline’s Bliss & Death) is in the dominance of this aesthetic shift over the base songwriting on a number of songs. Give a band enough time to tinker with guitar textures, drum sounds, and additional instrumentation, and there’s a definite risk that those elements will define the record. It’s far less likely that a home studio will cause a group to reevaluate their songwriting practices, Unwound’s Leaves Turn Inside You being a rare example.

The relatively positive Pitchfork review of Tragic Boogie states that the first half of the album trumps a weaker second half on the merit of this massive, shoegaze-influenced aesthetic, but I’ll argue the opposite. The stretch of “The Lucid Dream,” “Tragic Boogie,” and “The Politics of Driving” is as strong as anything The Life and Times has done, since the meta-level storytelling feeds off of those echoing layers of guitar. “The Lucid Dream” is a woozy, My Bloody Valentine-esque (I don’t use the comparison lightly; they’ve earned it here) fever dream, drifting with violence, regret, and oblique perspectives on Epley’s continuing musical pursuits. The title track pulls things back into the light, connecting images of doomed astronauts to both the suburban lifestyle and the group’s ongoing difficulties in finding a label and a larger audience (“We’re floating in space in search of a home, with no radio”). The two-chord signal, the rubbery, expressive bass line, and the forceful drum fills propel this story onward. “The Politics of Driving” is the album’s highlight, giving enough space to the blend of Epley’s delay-heavy rhythm guitar, Metcalf’s keyboards, and Abert’s baritone guitar leads before kicking into gear with an ascendant, cathartic rush. The song sheds some insight into Epley’s desire to keep going in the face of those label difficulties, those personal changes, with lines like “But victory would fade / The winners felt their days had no meaning / And so they’d kneel and pray / For something new to chase / Into the deep blue sea” and “But we love them even more when they don’t return” recognizing the uncontrollable impulse to press forward, even if it means certain doom. Epley’s never shied away from meta-level songwriting—“The Situationist” has “I loved the time when a little clumsy rhyming could put the crown on your head,” “The Egg” is clearly about nurturing Shiner and pushing it forward, even as things break down—and these songs add to that ongoing, cross-band commentary.

Perhaps it’s my preference for Epley’s meta-commentary on his bands or his dark character studies (Shiner’s “Sleep It Off,” The Life and Times’ “Muscle Cars”), but my issue with the first half of the record is that a few of the songs seem content with vague imagistic lyrics without much meat to them. The first three songs are strong enough; “Que Sera Sera” works well as an equally triumphant and foreboding lead-off track; “The Fall of Angry Clowns” hits a rewarding chorus of “Strange feeling, growing older”; “Let It Eat” charges forward with aquatic vocals, “Regretting all the lost days… in a future world,” establishing a thematic consistency. But “Old Souls” wastes a nice vocal performance of “You wait for me and I will pick you up right here” with too many vocal effects on the other lines, “Dull Knives” loves/hates love with trite lines like “Push and shove, they fuck the pain away / They kiss the hurt away,” and “Confetti” is more memorable for its (admittedly awesome) descending guitar lead and acoustic outro than any of the lyrics. Add two solid instrumentals (“The Pain Don’t Hurt” and the album-closing “Li’l 4 Notes”) and a reasonably good song dating back to 2003 (“Catching Crumbs”) and I’m left wanting more to chew on. The three bonus tracks from the Japanese release—two remixes and the instrumental “Life Is Pleasure”—aren’t any help.

I’ve listened to Tragic Boogie a number of times and I’m still hearing new sonic touches, new overdubs, new vocal harmonies, so if you’re more interested in how the record sounds, it trumps anything else The Life and Times has released. Yet only half of the record has stayed with me from a lyrical perspective. I half-expected this change in musical priorities after the aesthetic-first approach for some of The Magician, but a large part of what appeals to me about Allen Epley’s music is how Shiner’s mammoth riffs and The Life and Times’ layered compositions interact with the lyrics. Epley’s three best records—Lula Divinia, The Egg, and Suburban Hymns—rely on this combination. Tragic Boogie, however, is only 75% there. I still rank it well above Starless, but it does remind me of the eventual disappointment over that record. Maybe I’m being too hard on one of my favorite musicians, but I personally hope The Life and Times will re-enter their home studio less enamored with the tricks of the trade and more comfortable thanks to a stabilized label situation, and with the critical insight of an external producer like Robbins or Malinowki, produce another album that ranks among Epley’s finest, not slightly below them. The aesthetic blueprint drafted here is ready and waiting.

The Haul: The Life and Times' Suburban Hymns and The Magician

To prove that I’m documenting every physical piece of music acquired in 2009, here’s what I bought at the Hum / Life and Times / Dianogah show.

1. The Life and Times – Suburban Hymns LP – Hawthorne Street, 2007 – $12 new

The Life and Times' Suburban Hymns

I can understand how some Shiner fans might have lost interest with the second incarnation of The Life and Times during the group’s transition to a shoegaze/math-rock hybrid, but Suburban Hymns is my third-favorite Epley album behind Lula Divinia and The Egg. I enjoyed The Flat End of the Earth EP, especially “Raisin in the Sun,” but I can’t fathom Epley releasing album after album of relatively dry, restrained indie rock. “Houdini” is essentially a shoegaze song stripped of its aesthetic, so the progression to the shoegaze-inflected Suburban Hymns made sense.

With the exception of the overly similar “Running Red Lights” and “Charlotte Street,” the variation from song to song keeps Suburban Hymns fresh. “Coat of Arms” revives War-era U2 drum fills, “Mea Culpa” is a pulsing, dynamic rocker reminiscent of Shiner’s epic “The Simple Truth,” “Muscle Cars” is a chiming, melancholic lament, “Skateland” lurks with seething menace, and “A Chorus of Crickets” somehow makes the apocalypse a rousing event. While there are moments of levity, like the rare Epley love song “Shift Your Gaze,” I tend to be drawn to the songs lingering between resigned pessimism and detached malaise, just like Shiner’s best single, “Sleep It Off” b/w “Half-Empty.”

If you haven’t picked the album up, Hawthorne Street’s clear vinyl pressing is a fine option. (The Magician is pressed on translucent yellow vinyl.) It would have been nice to have a gatefold sleeve with more artwork like the point-on cover, but considering that only one Shiner album (Splay) was pressed on LP, I won’t complain about the lack of frills. Not every group can be Pelican, after all.

2. The Life and Times – The Magician LP – Hawthorne Street, 2008 – $10

The Life and Times' The Magician

Unlike Suburban Hymns, The Magician takes a full step toward shoegaze, particularly on the first two tracks, “I Know You Are” and “Hush.” There’s too much low end to lump them in with most “nu-gaze” groups—Jon always complains about how Loveless needed a proper drum recording—but Epley’s effects-laden vocals and drifting guitar lines are a long way from Shiner’s “Brooks” and “Released.”

While I enjoy those shoegaze tracks and the up-tempo “Ave Maria,” “The Sound of the Ground” stands above the other songs on this EP. The melodies are clearer and more memorable than those on the other songs (“Ave Maria” is closest). The primary guitar line, drenched in delay, is completely absorbing. Just as important, you can actually understand Allen Epley’s vocals. My biggest issue with the shoegaze version of The Life and Times is how it detracts from Epley’s lyrics, since Shiner songs like “Fetch a Switch,” “The Situationist,” “Cake,” and “The Egg” are so compelling because of the combination of the lyrics and those mammoth, churning riffs. I can live without the weight of those riffs—begrudgingly—since there’s something filling the void, but placeholder lyrics are a disappointment.

It’s funny that my first two purchases of the new year are double dips—I own CD copies of both of these releases—since that’s something I’ve been trying to avoid doing. In this case, I try to support The Life and Times whenever possible, and I hadn’t seen them since the vinyl had been pressed.