Weyes Blood at the Sinclair 5/28

The key moment in Weyes Blood’s current live show is the cover. Though her path from weird experimentalist to near romantic appreciation for classic rock-adjacency is by no means unheard of, you can hear the nuances of her edits to those sounds in the eerie aura that creeps into the “ancient” “God Only Knows.”  Titanic Rising, her latest album, includes a lot of classic dabblings—the phrases “it’s a wild time to be alive” and “give me something to believe” are both said verbatim—but the fresh, galactic sound helps these eternal, existential questions sound as heavy as they truly are.

In the live setting, a few things were clear. Though ending materials like “Generation Why” were wielded into anthemic long jams with Mering’s voice leading the way with extended syllables and “oohs,” the thick beauty of her new material thrives alongside her more structured sounds. Choruses of tunes like “Andromeda” and “Something to Believe,” though still at her usual tempo and energy level, spoke more effortlessly and cleanly than her more rambling older material.

Her sound is also growing more versatile. Self described “jaunty tune” “Everyday,” sounded world conquering with Mering’s velvet bellow belting over her piano stride and, on the other side of things, “Picture Me Better” stuck out almost like a country ballad with the absence of drums. Mering commented on this in a way that’s admittedly hard to describe via text, but she slyly mentioned that all her songs are about here (motioning somewhere below her waist), but for THIS one were going to lower it to here (only moving her hand down slightly).

This self awareness is probably mostly useful for her stage banter (she also jokingly referred to one of her songs as “Vape Cod”), but it creeps into some of her songs, helping to avoid excessive self-seriousness. “Movies” in particular is a bit ridiculous as Mering quasi-earnestly laments her love for these massive commercial cultural objects. Here, she dramatically struck ballerina-like poses, took off her suit jacket, and poshly threw it to the ground, which meshed well with the “fuck it, I love movies” attitude of the song.

It’s not really revolutionary for an indie rock artist to cover a Beach Boys song in 2019, nor is it rebellious to profess love for a summer blockbuster, but Weyes Blood validates these feelings in her work.  Titanic Rising speaks a lot about climate change, and a world falling apart at the seems, sure, but the way we deal with it is oftentimes cathartic and maybe even regressive or contradictory.  Nostalgia and humor won’t save us from rising sea levels, but maybe Star Wars and the Beach Boys will make us realize that its always been a wild time to be alive.

-Donovan Burtan

Pedro the Lion-Phoenix: Album Review

If Pedro the Lion’s “Yellow Bike” succeeds because of its precise simplicity, Phoenix somewhat falters in its commitment to such a songwriting strategy.  The album is not a complete failure by any means, but for 44 minutes, David Bazan essentially sticks to the same script.  Finding life affirmation in cleaning up and mining the painstaking process of looking at potential homes as a kid or saving up your allowance, Bazan speaks to his audience over straightforward guitar music, his voice lilting up and down almost as if in the same melodic routine for the whole album.

Now there’s certainly albums that succeed without really manipulating their form too drastically–Snail Mail’s Lush was in my top five of 2018 and Lindsey Jordan’s voice and songwriting strategies kind of make the album feel like one long snapshot in the vein of Phoenix.  The two songwriters also sing in a fashion that mixes buoyant joy, regret, and nostalgia making their works equally listenable on a highway with the windows down and on a somber late night ride home from work, but where they differ is the approach to the subject matter.  

At their core, Jordan’s singles “Heatwave” and “Pristine” are both break-up tunes and they both say “I wish you well” but the tone is completely different.  With its raucous, summer anthem guitar solos, the former feels triumphant, Jordan saying “I wish you well” with a piss-off sense of sarcasm. The latter is much more self-conscious, Jordan feeling like she’ll never be able to truly move on.  Phoenix is almost strictly nostalgic, it mines Bazan’s past with a mixed sense of happiness and longing, but rarely dives too deep into the stories for more nuance.  

There are a few highlights including “Yellow Bike” and Bazan’s expert take on peer pressure via “Quietest Friend.”  The best album moment comes between “Tracing the Grid” and “Black Canyon” where Bazan mentions the joy he gets out of hearing his family member’s stories and then delivers one on the next tune.  About a man who attempts suicide by getting hit by an 18 wheeler, the “Canyon” tells Uncle Ray’s story of the aftermath where the victim hilariously says: “Get this truck off my back/don’t know what I expected but that hurt really bad.”  When telling someone else’s tale, Bazan showcases the brilliance with which he can illuminate foreign characters–it’s disappointing to only get a hint of this talent here.

Judging from their brilliantly orchestrated new single, American Football is on the verge of a perfect veteran album that captures the cold temperatures of their past in an entirely new way.  Here, Pedro the Lion captures its essence and not much else.

-Donovan Burtan

6/10

 

Tomberlin-At Weddings: Album Review

“Feeling bad for saying ‘oh my god,’ no I’m not kidding”

Sarah Tomberlin doesn’t necessarily center her debut album around a loss of faith, but the songwriter pens a variety of coming of age moments that followed a sheltered youth–from simple moments such as hopping on a plane for the first time to more intense personal strife worth grappling with.  The album is personal and exceptionally well crafted, both wearing its bedroom origins on its sleeve and transcending them for a lushly dynamic experience.

Written and recorded around Tomberlin’s hometown of Louisville, the work sounds intimate, but incredibly fleshed out.  Each song is given a specific sonic imprint, some striving for big, impactful moments and others taken down to a dark smolder.  The opening track sees backing vocals and layered instrumentals give the light guitar strumming and cathartic lead vocals a decent amount of punch.  “Untitled 1” follows with enough recording magic to give the guitar a large-room like quality, but the vocals here are left essentially alone, starkly contrasting the bright melody of the first track.

Closer “February” is a similarly small sounding as simple guitar sketches bathe in reverb and Tomberlin emphasizes space between her vocal phrases.  However, the stand-out material on “Seventeen” and “Self-Help” comes closer to pulling off pop flourishes with warm string arrangements, looped and layered vocals, and atmospheric guitar work.  In isolation each of the tracks would likely be labeled “quiet,” but within the work there’s enough contrast to keep the momentum going.

In terms of lyrical material, some of the more memorable lines are as dark as the more smoldering instrumentals–named “At Weddings,” love is probably one of the most used words on the album, as Tomberlin discusses the pain and guilt that can underpin the word for those, especially queer women, who grew up around the church.  “There is a war in my mind/because I wanted to be near you;” “love is mostly war, and war what is it good for;” and “the heart is a heavy coffin where I lay down everyone I love” are relatively par for the course, eliding darkness with the feeling. However, as the “oh my god” quote indicates, Tomberlin can also pull off a wryly dark sense of humor here and there to make the work avoid feeling caustic.  “You always say that look so tough/but it’s because I’m tough” is bluntly emboldened, whereas “I just don’t trust people who like me” is smartly self-deprecating.

“At Weddings” is a capturing work that showcases Tomberlin’s developed sense of production and songwriting.  Certainly not a debut to overlook.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

 

 

Marissa Nadler-For My Crimes: Album Review

If 2016 saw Marissa Nadler flesh out her tunes—perhaps more than she ever has—with the lush arrangements of “Strangers,” 2018 is purely a glance at that which makes the songwriter so special. Sticking mostly to muted guitar, string, and vocal arrangements, “For My Crimes” features Nadler’s haunting vocal paintings bathed in her signature dark production atmosphere with tiny sonic details giving the work a glistening aura.  

The songs are mostly addressed to the past—memories, former friends or partners, and the objects that come with are all at play.  On the title track, Nadler hopes that her faults won’t define her image in the memories of others and elsewhere she admits to herself the extent to which a former relationship resulted in her own pain.  Standout track “I Can’t Listen to Gene Clark Without You Anymore” features Sharon Van Etten’s similarly smokey drawl and a specific type of sadness that us music folk feel around artists that remind us of past relationships.

If you’re not on the Nadler bandwagon already, now’s as good a time as any. Although some may mention that she’s not breaking down and re-creating her aesthetic in a super substantial way, the sonic environment she’s spent years crafting remains singularly timeless—sure to capture for years to come.

-Donovan Burtan 

7.5/10

Molly Burch-Please Be Mine: Album Review

On Please Be Mine, Molly Burch showcases her prowess as a frontwoman with simply crafted songs that rely heavily on her charismatic delivery and expressive inflections for success.  There’s sort of an element that Burch never sings the same thing twice on the album.  When a song has two repetitions of the chorus, Burch finds a way to make each one more convincing.  Each song follows a loose, love-song classification, but Burch and her band make each moment shine with their ear for riveting detail.  From the occasional moody modal jazz chord, to the distant sonic sparks and the impressive, yet coy guitar solos, Please Be Mine lifts folk tunes to soaring heights.

The album is certainly a bit monochromatic in terms of lyrics.  Downhearted paints a picture of a person who hasn’t quite come around: “I could be your dream girl/your whole world/if you let me,” then Wrong For You talks about loving the wrong person “you said I was the only one, but I know you say that to all the girls.”  Some other highlights include Loneliest Heart’s gloomy take on the changes we go through in our time alone and Not Today’s sorrowful, nostalgic glance at past relationship’s demise.  Overall, Burch isn’t really breaking any rules with these subject matters, but the sonic material makes things meaningful and she also sticks in some particularly biting lines on occasion: “you say my name it feels like fire.”

Burch’s singing shines on every track.  Again, it’s not necessarily that she uses any flashy material, but she adds so much expression into the mix with dynamics and rhythmic deviations.  On Try—for instance—Burch merely breathes the vocal melodies for much of the track, but then she barks out “I’m your little baby, your little baby PET” to contrast the slow, sweeping instrumental backdrop—it calls attention to itself immediately and shows that Burch has really got the audience by the throat.

Fool, on the other hand, is a prime example of Burch digging in deeper with each repetition of the chorus.  Burch first has this addicting pre-chorus with this big interval jump on “ha-RD,” then the chorus is a bit more anthemic.  First time around, Burch doesn’t too much other than sing out the melody, but during the second verse she plays around with the rhythm much more and just before the chorus she barks out another jolting line “you were not ni-ah-ICE” to kick off her belting reinterpretation of the refrain.

This track is also a good example of the other little sonic details that help along Burch’s expressive gestures.  The chorus has this cool call-and-response with the splashing backing vocals on ahh.  Also, the distant guitar solo compounds the sense of detachment.

The record’s treatment of piano is also particularly stellar throughout.  For Fool, it plays these pressing chords that are only fully realized at the climaxes of the tune.  With Loneliest Heart, there’s these tiny staccato plucks deep in the mix that add a lot of movement to the lethargic tempo.

Burch still needs to develop a little bit as a songwriter.  On later projects, it would be nice to hear other introspective topics or perhaps some sort of storyline, but Please Be Mine is a worthy collection of songs that show just how much of a presence Burch must have in the studio.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10

 

Julie Byrne-Not Even Happiness: Album Review

There are certain formulas that have stood the test of time and the folk singer/songwriter equipped with acoustic guitar is clearly one of them.  Although the pillars of the 1960s and 70s—Dylan and Mitchell—might still be the ones truly at the tip of your tongue when the topic is brought up, Chapman, Elliot, and Sufjan have carried us on to modern day.  Aided by some blissfully subtle decisions from producer Eric Littman, Julie Byrne has carved out a nice niche for herself on Not Even Happiness.  The album’s transient landscape effortlessly maintains a natural sensibility, while also tapping into some gorgeous electro-acoustic findings.  Byrne’s lyrics are beautifully introspective and focused so the album reads as a personal journey with words of wisdom for all people.

Built on themes of nature and dreams, Byrne finds herself torn between her relationship with herself and that of another person.  Nostalgia comes through quite often on a time when Byrne spent much of her time alone, needing only nature as a source of peace: “I’d cross the country and I’d carry no key/Couldn’t I look up at the stars from anywhere” she breathes on “Sleepwalker.”  Later on in that song, however, Byrne admits this time was imperfect: “I saw peace, and it never came to me/They often spoke as though I had been set free/But I traveled only service of my dreams.”  In retrospect, Byrne sees her former self as a sleepwalker, living under the influence of her own dreams without a sense of the outside world.  This idea that Byrne’s time in nature offered a false sense of peace explains her sacrificial line from the first tune: “To me, this city’s hell/But I know you call it home” and although it seems as though the relationship in this tune didn’t pan out, Byrne’s need for others to come into her world is expressed.

As the album pushes forward, Byrne marks significant relationships with an association between the other person and nature, reflecting the idea that she needs to balance her love of nature with her human connections. “Natural blue” constantly reuses the line “when I first saw you, the sky it was such a natural blue.”  This also works into the continuing theme of dreams and solitude.  Again on “Natural Blue,” Byrne spouts “Live in dreams, I remain forever/inside the colors you’ve shown to me,” thus combining a theme about her sense of self with her relationship with another.

The real crux of the project is finding a way to let others into our world without changing ourselves.  There are certain things that we keep hidden and perhaps solitude can provide comfort, however, it’s also important to find people in life who we can connect with.  Also, in Byrnes’s execution, there’s a sense that the message can work on a rather broad scale.  It doesn’t seem to be an album about a monogamous love story, simply a message about relationships as a whole.

Besides the major pieces of her emotional journey, Byrne constantly offers really striking wordplay. Simple phrases such as “life’s as short as a breath half taken,” “from your lips which splashed my dull hose with muses,” and “you’re the sea as it glides” decorate her tunes, whereas more complex ideas deepen the impact of the work. “And the stars are well where they are/For those who belong to them,” she speaks on “Sea as it Glides,” speaking to the people out there who remain alone in nature as she once was. The whole project also seems to come together in the last song where Byrne wonders “And I have dragged my life across the country/And wondered if travel led me anywhere/There’s a passion in me, but it stands no long for those things/Tell me how it feels for you to be in love.”

The sonic content is undoubtedly a bit one dimensional, but certain details add to the beauty of the words.  “Melting Grid” kicks off with a sort of pan flute sound effect adding to the airiness of the work.  Elsewhere, sound effects hide in the background like the waves crashing on the shore on “Sea As it Glides.”  Backing vocals also play an integral role, particularly on “Morning Dove,” where an intimate, lilting melody is ornamented by these glorious soprano-range “oohs” that swell ever so slightly.  Then, the project really comes full circle on the final track with these hymnal keyboard chords looping throughout as Byrne’s voice gets replaced by soaring strings.  These details feel effortless, but they clearly pack a lot of precision and delicacy.

Not Even Happiness is a beautiful accomplishment.  It’s not quite a concept album, but the lyrical focus gives it a sense of journey.  Also, the delicate intimacy in Byrne’s voice is matched by the subtlety in her instrumentation.  It’s not groundbreaking reorganization of form, but its emotional weight cannot be underestimated.

-Donovan Burtan

8.5/10

https://juliembyrne.bandcamp.com/album/not-even-happiness