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WAXAHATCHEE - Cerulean Salt ((Don Giovanni, 2013)

In a positive review of Torres’s great self-titled debut earlier this year, Pitchfork writer Jayson Greene said that Mackenzie Scott (aka Torres) often “plays a coiled, hurt figure willing herself to find the courage to transform into a 50 Ft Queenie, and not quite succeeding,” and that her songs “would explode, if only they had a little help.” I don’t have the space here to go fully into the complex dynamics of a male music critic describing a female singer-songwriter as a vulnerable, emotional, and damaged figure; let me just say there’s a long history of men fetishizing female hysteria in writing, and, while I don’t think Greene’s quite doing that, he is representing what he sees as raw “female need” as being something that makes Scott tantalizingly incomplete. (Also, those songs do explode.)

What does this have to do with Waxahatchee’s sophomore album, Cerulean Salt? Like Torres, it’s an album of blunt feeling, the kind that can be read as pure confessionalism and vulnerability, and I want to make it clear how important it is to recognize how much more is going on here.

Perhaps most obviously, Cerulean Salt is much cleaner-sounding than Waxahatchee’s 2012 super lo-fi debut, American Weekend, and this time it’s not just Katie Crutchfield’s voice and guitar. It’s cleaner than her records with P.S. Eliot, and if the songs have a bit less energy than that band’s, they are also more arranged. Not that this is a bad move: That thin lead guitar that creeps into “Dixie Cups and Jars” between verses couldn’t have happened on Sadie or American Weekend; Crutchfield feels like she’s using instrumentation and texture more deliberately here than on any of her other records to date. Check the restrained melancholy in the palm-muting and imperfect vocal doublings on “Blue Pt. II” leading into “Brother Bryan,” which never uses a single guitar but still feels like an anthem through the sheer repetition of its simple bass and drum lines. The fuzzed-out “Misery Over Dispute;” the sudden yet organic pace change and chorus harmonies of “Peace and Quiet” (and that single “ooh-ooh-ooooh” before the verse starts!); these are clearly composed moments, ones that give Cerulean Salt a diversity of sound to go with the increased fidelity.

Sometimes, this cleanness and arrangement makes Cerulean Salt feel like an album with good deal of pleasure and craft smarts, but low stakes. And perhaps that would be true, were it not for Crutchfield’s lyrics. To complement and subtly harmonize with the controlled lack of musical sloppiness, the words eschew high emotional drama yet manage all that aforementioned “blunt feeling.” Crutchfield has a way of transforming everyday objects into totems of emotion: I love the line, “We’ll smoke ‘til our pockets are empty” on “Brother Bryan,” turning the amount of cigarettes one has into a physical marker of how we lose time. Or this wonderful sequence from “Dixie Cups and Jars:” “Make-up sits on your face like tar / The champagne flutes [or flute’s] poorly engineered / Employ Dixie cups and jars.” While authors back to Xenophon have made cosmetics disgusting in one way or another, the stickiness and heaviness of tar is a simile I haven’t heard; the replacing of champagne flutes with paper cups and glass jars is just a nice little moment of bathos. This is definitely a headphones album, not so much because of any nifty production tricks or denseness of music-- you just don’t want to miss these words.

The words also bring us back to confessionalism. A lot of the time, Crutchfield does deal in emotions: “The atmosphere is fucking tired and brings us nothing” in “Blue Pt. II,” “We are only 30% dead” in “Brother Bryan,” “I had a dream last night / We had hit separate bottoms” in “Misery Over Dispute,” etc. And a lot of the narratives on the record-- about love and wanting-- seem autobiographical to some degree. But Crutchfield’s confessionalism is less total violent purging and vulnerability and more like the Confessional poetry of Anne Sexton (Crutchfield has mentioned in interview that she once had a band where all her songs were about Sexton poems,) where the excavating of emotions is only half the work. Listening to Cerulean Salt multiple times, the motto that arises is “In this dejection lives a connection”, from closer “You're Damaged” - like Sexton, the point of words in Crutchfield is to arrange and re-cast emotions into something more wide-ranging than just personal expression.

These are sad songs, songs of loneliness and displacement. But when I’m done listening, I feel satisfied or relieved in some quiet way. Taken in sum, the emotions of the album are bittersweet rather than harrowing, the act of someone looking back and relating the pain of life without collapsing in it. Which is why Waxahatchee’s Cerulean Salt is ultimately such a pleasureable album-- it realizes that confessing is just as much a part of living as drinking champagne out of Dixie cups, that the emotional and the chances of the everyday are not separate but rather ways of understanding each other. It’s a nice expansion of Crutchfield’s palate both musically and as a writer, and let’s hope the next album sees her even more unafraid to stretch out.

HILLY EYE - Reasons to Live
(Don Giovanni)

I’m pretty sure, in retrospect, Amy Klein was the best part of Titus Andronicus. Before she left in 2011, Klein played guitar and violin for the band, and occasionally provided vocals to allow listeners a break from Patrick Stickles’s deluges of ego. I saw the band twice in 2011; once in spring and once in winter, opening for Fucked Up. At the spring show, Klein’s cover of “Oh Bondage Up Yours!,” shortly after X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene’s death, was the most exciting moment of a great concert. She was gone by the time I saw them again; I wasn’t as into them but was pretty sure it was just because they were opening for Fucked Up, one of my favorite bands. But then Local Business, Titus’s next album, turned out to be a disappointment (see Jim Testa’s review on this site) after the excellent Monitor; and Klein’s new band Hilly Eye has just released the near-flawless Reasons to Live.

Hilly Eye’s a two-piece, Klein on guitar and lead vocals and Catherine Tung on drums and backing vox. It’s always exciting when a two-member band manages to take up all the possible space of a song in ways larger groups don’t. There’s something intimate and economical about a good two-piece, where both people only have each other to rely on for sound dialogue. (Japandroids’s first album, e.g., which sounded pretty much like two guys had been yelling at each other over their instruments in a garage, with only enough time to think of so many notes and words.) Hilly Eye’s songs manifest this intimacy and economy in the album's extreme focus-- in fact, they’re hyper-focused on each drum hit, each vocal harmony, and each slight volume swell. Tung’s drumming in particular is an incredible example of restrained intensity-- check out “Almanac”, where she plays the same simple pattern for over half the song then suddenly starts playing twice as fast, pushing Klein’s guitar forward from dream poppy to beautiful noise break.

Reasons to Live is a master class in dynamics (not to talk about her old band too much, but this is part of my theory that Klein was Titus Andronicus’s secret genius-- the dynamics on The Monitor were awesome). Opener “Way Back When” is a slow-burn throughout, teasing at noise eruptions but harnessing the feedback into measured arpeggios. As the song ends, the guitar gets quieter while the snare drum suddenly becomes more prominent, leading into “Jersey City”. “Jersey City” was originally on Hilly Eye’s debut EP, "Fireworks" (“Double Dutch” was also on that EP, but it’s changed more, being over a minute shorter and much tighter), but it’s so much more satisfying here as a long coda to “Way Back When”-- after almost seven minutes of holding back and making languishing dream pop, Klein’s voice suddenly turns into something like Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile and she half-sings, half-yells, “You think you’re sooooooo cool / You got an appetite for destruction.” (Not to reduce Hilly Eye to a riot grrrl revival act, of course.) “Way Back When” and “Jersey City” function as one long, nine-minute opener, and the sudden vocal shift is only the first of several viscerally exciting dynamic moments on the album. The last minute and fifteen seconds or so of “American Rail” are pure ecstasy; the drum build which abruptly turns into an almost a capella bridge of “Amnesia” does loud-quiet-loud as well as anything else since the Pixies; the sequence of “Animal” as noise-punk anthem fading into the dissonant harmonies of “Louisville” and fading further into the quiet chimes of “January”... I don’t have enough space in this brief review to list every time things explode or become a hush, or tauten into something in the middle, but let me just say each time I’ve listened to this album, I’m impressed with some unnoticed transition, some moment of change. On a similar note, the album’s sequenced brilliantly, flowing between weightless dreaminess and heavier, riffier tracks in exactly the right balance.

On their Facebook page, Hilly Eye call their music psychedelic noise pop, which seems about right. The album generally exists in a space of beautiful noise, melodies heightened by rather than blunted in distortion. Words exist in a similar lovely disorientation-- the vocals are often sung so high that it’s hard to make out what’s being said, and even when I can hear what Klein’s singing, I’m not 100% sure how to translate it into common English. (For a professional bit of confusion, see Pitchfork’s review of “Amnesia”, in which the writer scans the chorus as “Oh glory / my country, it lies” and praises Klein for it. Unfortunately, the actual words are, to my ears, “my country, it lies above”, which is much more interesting if less direct.)

But while I’m not always sure what’s going on, I can’t help feeling compelled to sing along wordlessly to the high parts, and the more understandable lower vocals all feel anthemic. “I put my money in a wishing well / I watched the sun turn the water golden”; “If I’m alive, then you’re alive / If I’m in love, then you’re in love / We go around, we go around”; the afore-mentioned chorus of “Amnesia”-- they’re all perfect balances between hermeticism and a kind of accessibility. My favorite track, “Animal”, is the most relatable for me-- double refrains of “You walk like a girl, but you’re a liar / And you talk like a girl, but you’re a liar / All the boys who get beaten up / All the girls who get beaten down” (later genders are reversed) and the Blake-referencing “Liar, liar, burning bright / in the forest of the night / Keep your promise to the girls / Tear apart the fucking world... Keep your promise to the men / Turn them into trees again”. It’s a weird and surreal as hell space, but somehow I just feel I’m in it with Klein, particularly around the impenetrability of gender that’s going on here. I’m sure other listeners will have their own moments of just getting it, probably in different places.

As 2013 goes on, I don’t think too many albums will be upsetting Hilly Eye’s debut as one of the best of the year. If you care about guitar music, noisy pop, poppy noise, or music that bends and warps rock into its own kinds of anthems rather than following the usual chord progressions and textures, check this out. After spending some time with this excellent Reasons to Live, I think I’ve got one more of those.

Cat Power-- Sun (Matador 2012)

It doesn’t seem like it should be a divisive moment when an artist returns with new material after six years, having recovered from well-publicized unhappiness; or when an artist announces DIY sufficiency by playing and producing virtually her entire new album herself. Cat Power’s Sun contains these narratives of revitalization and independence, and I at least was excited. Yet when an artist builds a reputation on songs of spare desperation and depression, strength isn’t always what fans want. When The Guardian streamed Sun before its official release, I recall reading quite a few comments to the effect of, “She’s happy now; fuck.” Sorry, Chan Marshall: your mental health isn’t worth as much to some of your base as your old skeletal electric guitar lines.

But Sun isn’t a simple happy record: sure, the cover has a blue sky and a rainbow, but they sit with a picture of Marshall at 20 (she’s now 40). If there’s hope here, it’s mixed with the knowledge of what’s been left behind. Rainbows fade quickly, like youth, and the sun that brings them out? It’s not just a signifier of new energy. “It’s hot, it’s hot, and close to us,” Marshall sings on the title track. “Here it comes, here it comes, it’s still warm / Here it comes, here it comes, we’re all so tired of waiting,” and those last four words are repeated a few times later. Ever been in a Southern summer, like in Marshall’s native Georgia? They get pretty exhausting. So Sun isn’t just Cat Power’s “happy album”, nor is it just her “electro album” or “hip-hop album” like other reviewers have suggested. All of these things touch on aspects of Sun, but ultimately this is Cat Power’s extrovert album-- and thus pop album.

First, though, a word on the electronics. Yes, Sun is full of synths, drum machines, and even a couple Autotuned vocal parts. Let’s not forget that Moon Pix opened with a Beastie Boys drum sample (and Sun is mixed by Phillip Zdar, who did Hot Sauce Committee Part Two); but here electronic instruments are centered for most of the album. It’s bold, if sometimes confusing-- e.g., Cat Power doesn’t need software to be on pitch, and unlike in Kanye West and Bon Iver’s pioneering uses of Autotune, there doesn’t seem be any meta-aesthetic commentary on artistic vulnerability and distance. I hesitate to call this an electro album for this reason-- the change seems like it was done rather because Marshall thought it might sound cool than for any dedication to exploring the potentials of electronic music. Key cuts like “Ruin”, “Manhattan”, and “Nothin But Time” use a lot of acoustic instrumentation, and only on “Silent Machine” are electronic textures allowed to erupt and contend with Marshall’s vocals. Otherwise, the electro parts exist only to make the canvas Marshall sings on big as possible.

Hence, pop. The aim of the new sounds is the opposite of Cat Power’s old minimalist guitar/piano sketches, which created a sense of introspection and intimacy. Of course, intimacy is always a bit illusory on record-- we each feel like the song is written just for us, and it’s not. Sun’s great achievement is trading the subtle artifice of this intimacy for the literal artifice of synths and vocal effects without becoming any less inclusive.

As mentioned earlier, the best songs here take a kind of weariness and offer if not happiness, then at least rest. “Bury me, marry me to the sky,” the chorus to “Cherokee” begins, and it gives an idea of what Sun is about. Burial and marriage both are transcendent acts here-- both unite the singer with the sky, both give respite. “Manhattan” and “Nothin But Time”, among the best songs of Cat Power’s career, both recall LCD Soundsystem in a way. The former reminds me of tracks like “Home” or “Someone Great”, a self-aware, dislocated looking-in that can only occur by looking out at one’s environment. And the latter, like “All My Friends” or “All I Want”, channels exhaustion into affirmation by repetition. “Nothin But Time” proves its point--”You ain’t got nothin but time / and it ain’t got nothin on you”-- across its 11 minutes, becoming one of the most vital songs I’ve in a while. Iggy Pop’s backing vocals should earn him some kind of cameo of the year award.

Which isn’t to say the whole album is so successful. The middle third drags a bit-- after “3,6,9“ suggests Autotune and radio-pop are going to be important parts of the album, there is a run of low-key tunes that are nice individually but kind of blur together sequenced as they are. Sticking a more dynamic song like “Silent Machine” or “Peace & Love” in the middle might have helped, or making “Always on My Own” even quieter to provide contrast. As it is, the moments between “Ruin” and “Manhattan” don’t really make an impression on first listen. “Peace & Love” is a good closer, a vocally-layered chant, but its sloganeering-- “99%, y’all!”-- seems a bit affected after the resonance of “Nothin But Time”. Yet, if Sun isn’t a classic like Moon Pix or You Are Free, “Peace & Love” shows why it’s still a pretty great flawed album. Cat Power is still earnest, still has things at stake. The stage has gotten a bit bigger, and the roof is off-- in the light, we see her face more if we can’t hear the thoughts as clearly-- but most importantly, we find the sun has warmed and burned each and every one of us after the dancing is over.

The Capitalist Kids -- Lessons on Love, Sharing, and Hygiene (Toxic Pop)

There are plenty of political punk bands; but how many can write a sweet love tune too? It’s hard to picture, say, Propagandhi writing a song about singing They Might Be Giants songs on a second date, or Against Me! allowing themselves the corniness of “missing the electricity / that happens when we touch hands”. And yet, as their band name and album title respectively show, Austin’s Capitalist Kids are the rare band that can show us why both politics and love matter.

Both themes are given about an equal weight, and the implication is that without one or the other, we’d be sunk. The Capitalist Kids advocate togetherness in both realms-- they aren’t afraid of being called Socialists because Socialists stand together, and “Eagle Thunder” takes its name from the fact that singer/lyricist/bassist Jeff (credited with no last name in the liner notes) and his future wife apparently call themselves Team Eagle Thunder. The album’s greatest fear is that “We Are Each Ultimately Alone in the Universe”-- it’s no accident that that song is the most jittery here, switching between stop-start guitar riffs and fast palm-muted sections, lyrics spit out with maximum anxiety. But even “We Are Each Ultimately Alone...” ends with a “please”, with the possibility that things aren’t so ultimate, and most of the other songs combat this idea.

Of the love songs, “That’s When I Knew” is both my favorite musically and the one most likely to make me smile. It mixes sixteenth-note palm-muted guitars, some tasteful “woah-oh-ohs”, and the afore-mentioned TMBG reference. It’s the story of a new relationship, the little details that let us know we’re falling in love. The political songs are all pretty great, attacking capitalism both in general and in specific failings. “Parachute of Gold” ties in nicely to the Occupy movement, “Socialism Ain’t a Dirty Word” defends progressive politics in an election year in which government’s involvement in issues like business and health care is a crucial debate. “Ayn” is a real stand-out, smartly criticizing her brand of free-market capitalism as just another way to make sure the “supermen” get everything the rest of us can’t.

The general sound of the album is heavily indebted to the classic Lookout! Records bands that were playing when these guys were teenagers-- spiced up by a mid-song key change here, hand-claps there, the short acoustic closer “Ericacoustic”. None of the songs repeat each other, but it’s a very familiar sound. It’s accessible to anyone whose knowledge of pop punk doesn’t go beyond Green Day or Bad Religion (Jeff’s voice is sort of between Billie Joe’s and Greg Graffin’s, actually), but those of us who’ve heard a Crimpshrine record or two will appreciate how the sound gets updated and tweaked in places. The Capitalist Kids have taken all the catchiness of classic records and really played up the vocal melodies. But by playing around with rhythms that sometimes chug into each other and sometimes emphasize staccato hits, and almost eschewing choruses altogether, they’ve made a record that pays homage without aping. It makes Ben Weasel-slam “Weasel” a lot more personal, as you can tell he really was a big musical hero to the band. Fittingly, the song about getting older, living in a world when Lookout! is punk history, “Three-Oh” has a more mellow sound, and the extended instrumental outro sounds like the Capitalist Kids breathing and letting themselves bring out sense of melody they’ve sprinkled through the rest of the album.

Unfortunately, I do have one unavoidable critique of the album. I realize a lot of punk fans aren’t going to agree or care with this complaint, but it’s part of a big problem in the scene. As I’ve said before, the love songs here are generally sweet, have an intimate and self-deprecating sense of humor, and generally come off as honest and heartfelt. But there are some lyrical moments that make it difficult for me to wholly appreciate them: “...and pretty soon now you’re gonna wonder how / you ever lived before you met me”; “ stop resisting, just give in to happiness / this might be as good as it gets”; “I need a tube or two of super glue / so I can glue her to me today”; “...and maybe one day when we’re older / we’ll put some babies in her”. All of these lyrics depict a relationship model popularized by Weezer (great article here: --though I’m not saying anything on Lessons on Love... is remotely as terrible as a standard Rivers Cuomo lyric, just that there’s some common DNA) in which women don’t have a lot of independence. Sure, the guy in this model professes dependence and need too, but there’s always the sense that he’s the provider, protector, and possessor. The idea is that, because a guy loves a girl, she owes him love back. I don’t want to accuse anyone in this band of real-life misogyny-- the problematic lyrics aren’t aggressively male-centric so much as not fully thought-out-- I’m just saying that, as someone who isn’t male, songs that perpetuate ideas of women giving themselves up to men and being glued into relationships are getting pretty old. Punk is full of gendered power dynamics, and the Capitalist Kids may not be making these any worse, but these occasional lyrical acts aren’t making things better either.

That said: this is a great album, and I don’t think the above paragraph should stop anyone from picking it up. Some love songs, like “That’s When I Knew”, are respectful and relatable the whole way through, and those that aren’t generally only get dodgy in one or two lines. I still listen to Pinkerton; I just have to listen to P. S. Eliot and the Max Levine Ensemble too. Buy Lessons on Love... for the politics, for the music, for its intimacy-- just be careful about which relationship lessons you choose to take away.


Toys That Kill? - Fambly 42 (Recess Records)

After around two decades in F.Y.P., Underground Railroad to Candyland, and Toys That Kill (plus a solo career and day job as head of Recess Records), Todd Congelliere probably could’ve gone the tried and tired way of “rockers/punks grow up, make album of surprising musical maturity and introspection” and no one would’ve minded. The last TTK album, 2006's fantastic Shanked!, ended with “31 Year Old Daydream”, a song about frustration and failure in love and punk, and hope for a final cleansing? “Let ‘em hear the rain / that’s falling on me”. It was a great song closing a great album, but it seemed to herald a settling-down for the band. So it’s even more unexpected and impressive that Fambly 42, TTK’s newest album, is perhaps their most unsettled album yet.

Fambly 42 is in some respects an album about aging, as many of Congelliere’s works have been since F.Y.P.’s grade-school concept album and obnoxious masterpiece, Dance My Dunce. But there’s not very much in the way of meditation or exploration of personal change? aging is a messy, fragmented process here. In fact, age is only one part of Fambly 42‘s disjunction. The album is full of paranoia and suspicion? its beginning line is “Dust mites, parasites, all could’ve been there that night” and ends by repeating “If I come back down they’re gonna get me” two dozen times. When love goes bad in “I Don’t Wanna Be Around”, Congelliere doesn’t get sad, he gets claustrophobic; when he takes a second to realize getting older hasn’t improved him in “Stye”, he still sees other people making worse mistakes; in “Ape Me”, he’s not bored, but his “time is worth shit zero”. It’s not nihilism, and certainly not run-of-the-mill punk anti-authoritarianism? there are lots of “if”s and choices in the songs? rather a look at a life lived with powerlessness and everyday absurdity. The universe according to Fambly 42 is arbitrary and off (on the vinyl, side A has a picture of a raccoon biting a canine leg, then side B replaces this with an child biting the same leg), but worth participating in. “I’ve Been Stabbed!” offers a summary of the album: the attack isn’t by any conscious enemy but by “a lightning bolt” and the narrator isn’t sure why any of us are fighting back. The metatextual second verse concludes “Tried to laugh, tried to sing, tried to get along / but I dunno this song. I don’t know it!” Of course, Congelliere is singing anyway.

Musically? though the band still has a broader range than many pop punk acts, leaning towards suspended chords and syncopated guitar parts? the album uses a restricted sonic palette, at least compared to Shanked!. Some of this due to the band self-producing Fambly 42, resulting in a purposefully lower quality that presses the instruments together and obscures the mix. Drum beats and strumming patterns are re-used, and melodies from songs often resemble each other (listen to “V-Chip (Installers)” and “I’ve Been Stabbed!” back-to-back). But this works to the album’s advantage, creating a sense of inter-song dialogue and motifs that force both claustrophobia and unity. The album feels familiar and pressing the first time through. Variations, like the harmonic-minor stomps of “Abort Me Mother Earth” and “I’m Foaming!” or the folk-punk banjo that briefly opens up “Clap For Alaska”, keep the album from fermenting.

Ultimately, Fambly 42 is an album where everything is related and nothing is understandable - hence the title’s misspelling of “family”. The almost-title-track, “Fambly”, (one of three written and sung by Sean Cole, Congelliere’s partner since F.Y.P.) contains the line “Family, it sleeps with it’s (sic) clothes on”. Toys That Kill know it’s what’s familiar that gets most distant without ever going away, and has the most potential for mutation. Here’s hoping they keep getting weirder without losing us.

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