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I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.
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It’s been a little minute since one could stumble upon as a trial-by-fire, all-killer/no-filler, straight-as-an-arrow alternative punk rock LP from a legacy act as Bob Mould’s latest blazing studio full length project, Blue Hearts. The former Hüsker Dü and Sugar frontman’s fourteenth as a solo artist, the LP dropped on 25th September and follows in the footsteps of 2019’s rather upbeat and stray light Sunshine Rock in the shape of what his indie label Merge Records dubs as “the raging-but-catchy yin to Sunshine Rock’s yang”, before adding that it was “recorded at the famed Electrical Audio in Chicago with Beau Sorenson engineering and Mould producing”, concluding that “Blue Hearts nods to Mould’s past while remaining firmly planted in the issues of the day”. Promo blurbs aside, the record cuts through like a rabid and quaint meat and potatoes uppercut at a packed and austere fourteen songs and 36 minutes of runtime, keeping comfortably on brand for an old underground hardcore scene head such as Mould.
While sporting key tunes on the album in title disguises such as “American Crisis“, “Forecast of Rain“, and “Racing to the End” might make the principal conceptual undercurrent of Mould’s latest exploit all too painfully obvious, there is so much more than meets the eye on the Malone, NY-native newest project. Mind you—all individual chapters sequenced within this thematic crusading journey are ultimately nothing more than blistering and riveting peas in a pod, but for one the semi-acoustic, stripped down, analogue frontiers on the album’s tail ends “Heart on My Sleeve” and “The Ocean” provide an equally awakening and matter-of-factly respite amidst the bulk of this body of work’s asphyxiating searing bonfires. The record’s flip in mood and sentiment compared to its predecessor is impossible to miss already on its unhinged seven-track A-side, with manic and inflammatory numbers such as “Next Generation” and “Fireball” exhuming some of Mould’s most piercing and inspiring mid-80s Hüsker Dü reference pull-ups, not without being set ajar to the kind of trademark sweet-on-the-ear sticky songwriting drowned in amp gain found in the aforementioned “Forecast” as well as “Siberian Butterfly” on that same front-end.
Perhaps even more pronouncedly than on any other body of work found within Mould’s career past the new millennium mark, Blue Hearts frequently sees the 59-year-old punk rocker flirting and fiddling with enveloping backup singing harmonies, courtesy of staple touring member and longtime band bassist Jason Narducy. Cases in point, on the less cohesive but compositionally more articulate and gnarly record’s B-side, are the groovy and infectious “Baby Needs a Cookie” at number ten, as well as album highlight “Password to My Soul” just two skips down the line, displaying revered and classic Mould playbook elements such as oceans of Fender Stratocaster distortion, sticky and tender chords progressions, lavish viscerality, and just wealth and wealth of melody. Such moments not only serve as poignant reminder for both Bob’s creative efficacy and deep influence over his 40-year-long career, but also go offset duller points on the project, found most acutely on the mutual carbon copied-snoozers of formulaic duds “When You Left” and “Little Pieces“.
What’s more, on the qualified and loaded half hour and change the former Sugar honcho packs in on his fifth consecutive album on the North Carolina indie imprint, there is even room for flavoursome sentimental detours, arguably not amongst Mould’s most recurring topical calling card. These afford listeners gratifying mundane interludes in-between the overtly explicit socio-political framework that so assertively defines the record’s overarching ethos. Take for instance “Everyth!ng to You“, a jolly and carefree tongue-in-cheek romantic declaration checking in halfway through the project, or even the raunchy blues rock of “Leather Dreams“, the latter not only casting somewhat unusual alt-garage sensibilities onto his songwriting, but also housing what might be the highest number of innuendos Bob ever lied to tape at once. With that being said, his voice is still mixed just that ounce or two too quiet to get eaten by cymbals, I mean guitars, to prompt listeners to pay a little bit extra attention.
This time though it’s as important as ever and not one bit less catchy than what we’ve come to expect from the old hardcore punk fox. Look—you don’t need to hear it from me, but in so many ways a project like Blue Hearts could only have come out in a year such as 2020. Existential and impending climate dismays, ostracising and disenfranchising societal uproars by way of ethnic reckonings, an earth-shattering public health emergency, and a menacing and breathtaking forthcoming election for the 46th President of the USA all end up crunched and parsed within the bold, earnest, and stern fourteen acts of Bob Mould’s auditory gesamtkunstwerk. This is stoic, matter-of-fact, and heart-on-sleeve zeitgeist recounting, free of virtue signalling or empty sloganeering, set to an animalistic and savage sonic score that ranks amongst the New York state-native’s most sincere and unfiltered. Don’t spend too much time scouting for soft and delicate acoustic menageries or intimate whispered affairs on this thing—those are to be found in spades across Mould’s rich and prolific back catalogue. This is the official soundtrack to going to hell in a hand basket, carrying chocolate chip cookies to tame a mean and evil orange monster…
2020, Merge Records
Considering the profound influence it has had on mainstream rock music in the new millennium, it’s ashamedly baffling how little real estate this site has dedicated to Las Vegas rock band The Killers over the course of its six-year online existence. Notwithstanding the somewhat lopsided distribution of studio projects released by the Brandon Flowers-fronted outfit during their almost twenty-year-long career—prolifically loaded in its front-end, with four LPs within eight years between 2004 and 2012 (Hot Fuss, Sam’s Town, Day & Age, and Battle Born), only to go on to release just two more in as many years since then (2017’s Wonderful Wonderful and last week’s Imploding the Mirage)—there is no denying that such a recidivistic AWOL state ought to be remedied in spades. What better occasion to right such unjust wrong than the highly anticipated, greatly acclaimed, and bizarrely delayed issuance of the American alt rockers’ sixth official full length album, out on Friday 21st August on Island Records.
American adult alternative rock stalwarts The Killers—nowadays virtually just answering roll calls as frontman Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr—should not need any formal introduction to many a cultural bystanders, owing to their bragging rights awarded a mighty flexing of around a dozen modern-day indie rock classics that brought them top-of-the-charts comfort and festival crowd-pleasers alike. Announced by the group’s camp in early March alongside triumphant and life-affirming lead single “Caution“, and following up their slept-on and critically slashed Wonderful Wonderful two years prior, Imploding the Mirage mirrors its predecessor in track listing and runtime (ten songs clocking in at around 42 minutes). Unlike its forerunner though, it’s tightly packed with big, larger-than-life, loudness-war victorious arena fist throwers, collaboratively dished out with a host of unlikely co-signs, ranging from Canadian pop singer k.d. lang to The War on Drugs‘ Adam Granduciel, although the mightiest headline-inducing cameo comes courtesy of former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham (who lends six-string wizardry to the aforementioned “Caution”).
After a second teaser to the full length following around the end of April in the shape of the hazy world-grooves encapsulated by the outstanding “Fire in Bone“, the group saw fit to unveil two more sonically eclectic and compositionally dense cuts prior to the full exploit between June and August—the ripe and wondrous album opener “My Own Soul’s Warning” and the Springsteenian synthetic horse-galloper “Dying Breed” (the former attached to two official music videos in an unconventional promo stunt). Truth be told, in retrospect such an assembly of ginormous preview tracks functioned as the perfect canary in the coal mine for the tiring full project experience, on the heels of their nearly asphyxiating sonic grandeur and pitiless climactic sound dynamics, pulling one uppercut after another to unaware listeners, found drowning in these records’ blown out mastering and fat stem layering. Don’t get it twisted though, none of these are bad songs in and of themselves—they are just a lot on the eardrum.
Regrettably, the remaining six joints on the record provide little respite from gargantuan sound compression and airwaves-stuffing fatigue. Cases in point are the album’s two synth-overdosed weaker closing moments, “When the Dreams Run Dry” and the vast, elusive, and spacious title track. Again—not the worst tunes the band has ever written, but enveloped in as much testosterone-fuelled overboard sound design that it dilutes and decoys from their redeemable compositional merits. It’s a shame that when Imploding the Mirage does take a breather and attempts to slow down the adagio a notch, such as with the piano-led mid-tempo radio ballad “Lightning Fields“, or the Weyes Blood-assisted cinematic ear worm “My God“, these plateaus actually double as outright lull snoozers of the pack, particularly when considered in the context of the full record’s songwriting valour. Meanwhile, thankfully and conversely, the Big Country-homaging sing-along stunner “Blowback” and the glorious saccharine guitar-work on “Running Towards a Place” easily make for some of The Killers’ most laudable and inspired work in a decade, significantly contributing to elevating the album’s overall lasting creative impact beyond its obese production’s dazzling fog.
In other welcome rock song craft news—that is, you know, pertaining to actual four-minute songs with inherent artistic value recorded with genuine acoustic instrumentation—New Jersey emo/folk natives The Front Bottoms chose the same late August Friday as Flowers and co. to unveil their seventh official studio album to the world, In Sickness & In Flames (out on Warner Music’s Fueled By Ramen). Standing as their most ambitious project yet, the record is a matured (?) concept journey through life’s tragicomic inertia, inevitably moulded by this year’s public health crisis impact and, as one has come to expect from the eclectic and exuberant slacker duo, growing up. In Sickness & In Flames undoubtedly ranks amongst The Front Bottom’s longest, heaviest, and sincerest exploits to date, with as many as twelve slyly-sequenced tracks, where even the snappiest ones run just short of four minutes of heart wrenched content.
Let us be honest, few other acts in the 2010s have been as consistent and accomplished in recounting late stage capitalism stream-of-consciousness cautionary tales for suburban twenty-somethings as the Woodcliff Lake-natives, not without an (un)healthy dose of self-deprecation and inconsolable incorrigibility. Their 2013 masterpiece Talon of the Hawk is pretty much a genre calling card at this point, and by some unconventional artistic twist of fate, their resilient semi-acoustic, heart-on-sleeve, spoken word open mic aesthetic has managed to do without a great deal of innovation—or even evolution—in order to retain their flavoursome and witty merits. Clearly, The Front Bottoms are still amongst the proudest torch bearers for legions of millennial simps, and their latest LP is a powerful if emotionally available and subdued budding everyday life account, casting an approaching new decade wide open as continued beacons of their stoic and earnest DIY underground milieu.
Songs-wise, less than the somewhat stale, phoned-in, and overcooked lead singles “everyone blooms” and “Fairbanks, Alaska“, it’s deeper cuts such as upbeat indie dance slapper “jerk” and the stern and austere lamenting ballad “the hard way” that both sound classic TFB and find them at their abundant best on this new project. It’s however the album’s B-side (or C and D sides, for y’all vinyl-maniac), taking off with the 90s alt rock/post-grunge firestarter “leaf pile” and wrapping up with the shivering and gorgeous piano closer “make way“, that makes for the most focused, captivating, and compelling back-to-back half hour of music that lead vocalist/guitarist Brian Sella and drummer Mat Uychich have put out to date. Accept this early and unsolicited hot Twitter take as receipt legitimising said acknowledgement. Elsewhere on the record’s side B, “new song d” at number eight on the tracklist is a most serious contender for their all time best song, period—whereas “bus beat” is ridiculously packed with hooks (“I do it like that because that’s the way my baby likes it“) and even the aforementioned “Fairbanks, Alaska” sounds righteous and well-placed amidst such songwriting delicacy.
The Killers and The Front Bottoms represent a tale of two rock and roll cities, both with their respective blistering blessing and crushing curses. One is made of a big, loud, and flashy razzmatazz, banking on glamorous superficial appearances and romanticised bella vita. It’s tempting and sensorially appealing, it sucks you in by way of its luring chassis and swaying halo effect, yet upon prolonged exposure it might render it mundanely hard to swallow all at once. The other one the brick and mortar manifestation of struggle, defiance, and acceptance—laminated by rusty copper-looking buildings and never quite succeeding in shaking off those blue-collar last smoke residuals, be it from cigarettes or a flickering pyre. These musical cities are adjacent. They neighbour one another, and go as far as exchanging forms of underbelly trade flows and unhealthy next-door syndrome. The grass might always be greener on the other side, but with Imploding the Mirage and In Sickness & In Flames the real optimum lives in the dialectic interaction of these two vivid exponents of the state of the modern rock and roll art.
2020, Island Records
THE FRONT BOTTOMS
2020, Fueled By Ramen
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It’s the feel-good heat of the summer and the laureate poet of Willow Lane has a new site, so it only felt right to come on here and blabber about a string of singles that recently saw the light of day and fiercely stand to represent lead promo anticipation for hyped up full length projects from a couple of acts on the rise (both the record label and figuratively, as in starting to climb their career ladder showing promising signs of imminent explosion and audience adoption). We thought we’d collate and scrutinise a gauntlet of songs that caught and left our attention over the past month or so, worthy of critical appraisal by way of short, straightforward, passionate, biased opinions. Sonically, it’s everything but the kitchen sink, illustrating works of art ranging from the anthemic arena rock of California alternative band Angels & Airwaves (aka AVA) all the way to the indie R&B synth-pop sensibilities of singer/songwriter Dominic Fike, as well as the quintessential electronic retro nostalgic vaporwave orchestrations of the stylistic meetings of the minds between Virginia-native George Clanton and 311’s Nick Hexum.
When Tom DeLonge is not busy figuring out astrobiology and breaking life in space via his para-governmental scientific think tank venture To The Stars… Academy, his principal day job for the last fifteen years or so—notwithstanding his erratic and dysfunctional blink-182 reunions in-between—has consisted in masterminding, fronting, and furthering the realm for multi-media douchy artistic project AVA, whose meaningful musical output in the 2010s had to be significantly kneecapped by his extracurricular commitments both inside and outside the music sphere. So much so that aside from a couple lukewarmly received EPs, dating sometime during the decade’s back-end, their sole, true, proper front-to-back album and relative promotional cycle was 2014’s The Dream Walker—one no less exclusively written by Tom with the only help of multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Ilan Rubin, sans founding member and fellow guitarist David Kennedy (who, fair enough, was probably very preoccupied running and nurturing his entrepreneurial stick via his artisan and handcrafted coffee brand in San Diego).
2019 brought along rosey eventualities for AVA fans though, as the band not only saw fit to officially reunite with Mr Kennedy, but also enlisted prominent and reputable bass guitar virtuoso Matthew Rubano (of Taking Back Sunday and All-American Rejects fame) for a host of live shows in the USA spanning the fall of that same year. On the heels of a new partnership with BMG Rights-owned underground indie imprint Rise Records, and in conjunction with the mini tour announcement which came in April 2019, Tom and co. unveiled two new crisp and synth-laden exploits, poised to tease and preview an upcoming album slated presumably for some time in the near future. First was the carefree, sticky, and electro-poppy “Rebel Girl“, followed up shortly during the summer by the washed out and tongue-in-cheek “Kiss & Tell“, two unequivocal indications of a band’s heightened flirt with catchier melodies and emotive radio-friendliness, perhaps stemming from residual occupational hazards from many of the project members’ past budding experiences in the upper echelons of the American pop-punk canon.
So next thing we know 2020 rolls along, and with it various irreversible ecological cataclysms, an unprecedented public health crisis, and existential insurrectionary racial protests plaguing virtually the whole Western hemisphere—these not just completely jeopardising the music industry’s lifeblood and sustainability, but also obviously putting gargantuan brakes on any creative process’ progression due to take place during this year’s first cursed half. Nonetheless, some time in April amidst peak pandemic mode, AVA chose to reveal a third single in anticipation to its yet-to-be-announced sixth studio LP, coming in the shape of the four minute atmospheric stadium rock number “All That’s Left Is Love“. This cut strips back the abundant tapestries of electronic layering that so pronouncedly ornamented their first two singles in this series, in favour of a rawer and more organic six-string sonic funnelling coupled with unsurprisingly outstanding drumming from Rubin, throwing listeners back to some of the collective’s earlier efforts (as heard particularly on their debut LP We Don’t Need to Whisper). However, what causes the tune to not stick its landing, leaving much to be desired, is Tom and Rubin’s uninspired songwriting here—falling flat on a strident lack of structure and spotty vocal lines. Bottom line, the tune at the core of this song needs fixing and more TLC.
Queued up next in this track roundup review bonanza is the inaugural offering from American singer and ex-rapper Dominic Fike‘s highly-anticipated upcoming debut album, which shall to this day remain untitled (although not un-tracklisted). After singlehandedly spurring a multi-million record contract bidding war amongst major industry players off the back of his grassroots SoundCloud hype and the clout surrounding his later re-released indie rock project Don’t Forget About Me, Demos, before lending his creative and vocal imprint on the BROCKHAMPTON collective, and dropping a handful standalone singles during the course of last year, the 24-year-old Floridian seems finally ready to unearth his long awaited first outing on major label Columbia Records. An initial robust hint in this direction was the release of the dead-beat and hypnotic R&B bedroom jam “Chicken Tenders” on 26th June—a teasing slice of what the full blown out project might hold attached to a hazy, hallucinating, and playful music video. Granted, this thing is far from a stunner or even a significant step up from the pre-existing sublime songwriting skills and instrumental proficiency he showcased on previous outputs, but it does hold inherent replay value and rocks an irresistibly exhilarating refrain, just mildly quenching our thirst while we await for the full album to drop: “Chicken tenders in my hotel, yeah / Christina’s in my bed watchin’ TV shows / When she hit the remote with her legs shakin’, that’s good love makin’ / Watchin’ wherever my head facin’, it’s for bugs, baby“.
Moving on from there—it’s time for vaporwave’s own self-declared David Bowie George Clanton, who turned the underground electronic music scene on its head in 2018 as he gave birth to his synthwave retro-nostalgia-soaked magnum opus Slide and legit started to turn heads in the industry, flirting with influential tastemakers, more mainstream circles, and even going as far as launching the first vaporwave-approved music festival in the world, 100% ElectroniCON. Ever the indie Internet underdog kid and founder of influential Bandcamp-generation full-service record label 100% Electronica, Clanton is also known by the monikers Mirror Kisses and ESPRIT 空想, under which he has been dishing out slightly different yet extremely adjacent stripes of cloudy electronic musings since the late Noughties. Meanwhile, late last year the Richmond, VA-native surprise-announced an exclusive creative collaboration with USA reggae-rock band 311’s singer and guitarist Nick Hexum—incidentally and by his own admission one of Clanton’s biggest musical influences. Initially, this resulted in the carelessly euphoric and angelic double single “Crash Pad / King for A Day“, featuring songwriting and production from Clanton hugging gnarly staccato deliveries by Hexum. This winning authored formula got preserved for a following streak of new singles in relatively fast succession, including the sublimely divine dream-state extravaganza of “Under Your Window“, the colder, insipid and lacklustre “Out of the Blue“, as well as a five-track EP dubbed Aurora Summer, unveiled at the end of May and bundling all previously debuted tracks plus the inclusion of the crunchy and gratifying synthetic moods of the self-titled opening piece.
Next thing we know, “Aurora Summer” the song gets downgraded to B-side on yet another two-track single from the top dawg-duo titled “Topanga State of Mind“, released at the end of June in what appears to be the last sonic teaser before a full length 100% Electronica-earmarked project drops on 24th July. This last preview offering might be the most unapologetically ‘vaporwave-y’ of them all, soaked and drenched as it is in gelid reverbed synth menageries, slickly working in joyous guitar riffs whilst comfortably nestling some of the most reductive and simplistic sets of lyrics heard on a Clanton tape to date: “Sunburn in a place I’ve never been before / When I get out here I feel like I know the score / Why’s it gotta be people can’t unwind? / You can’t move along until you’re righting the wrong / Even if you just put it in a song / Topanga state of mind“. Admittedly, once the self-titled debut comes out later this month, there won’t be much left to the listeners’ imagination, considering that a beefy six out of nine projected songs on the LP have already been unchained in some form or another over the span of the last ten months. Yet, it is always a joy and never a chore to re-delve into Clanton’s otherworldly and ontological auditory journeys—and while Hexum’s overproduced and mid-range-adoring singing is an acquired taste, arguably best left to this one-off collaborative effort, at this point the genius can’t be put back in the bottle.
ANGELS & AIRWAVES
2020, Rise Records
2020, Columbia Records
GEORGE CLANTON & NICK HEXUM
2020, 100% Electronica
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