Tape Review: HAWN’s “For a Ride”

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HAWN

For a Ride

(Strategic Tape Reserve)

The Coen brothers are visited by the ghosts of Hunter S. Thompson, Albert Camus, and Alan Vega. Hunter says to the boys, “Hey, let’s go for a ride”. Albert says, “Why not? Maybe stuff will happen”. Alan says, “We can make some spooky weird bleep-bloop music about it”.

They hop into the ’71 Eldorado in the dead of night, loaded up with mescaline pellets, and embark on a road trip through small town America. The people and happenings are twisted, absurd, and ordinary. They can’t tell what’s the mescaline and what’s reality. It’s all the same. Reality is what you perceive it to be. Morning never comes. It just gets darker, and warps further, until their minds, the crux of the very universe, are slowly eroded by the psychotropics, or the digital apocalypse, or the small, pointless, heartbreaking interactions between people.

HAWN’s For a Ride sounds like this, and more to the point, electronic Americana where the face of America is melting away and all that’s left is the raw code. John Craun’s layered synth soundscapes blur the lines between glitch pop and no wave, while Micheal Jeffrey Lee’s sung-spoken falsetto vocals work desperately to wring emotion out of lyrics written like prose from The Stranger: cold, blunt, slightly cryptic philosophical observations, mostly pertaining to mortality. You’ll find the reading of wills, the discovery of decapitated bodies, narrations from cadavers, conversations with men who wished they’d spent their time differently, etc. The surreal and mundane bleed into each other until they’re completely indistinguishable.

For a Ride is deeply unsettling, much in the way No Country For Old Men or Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” is. It’s also deeply fascinating and deeply addicting. Craun’s production is pristine, Jeffrey Lee’s folktales are haunting, and together they make for an incredibly powerful anthology of narratives and scores that peel back the flesh of humanity and parse through the zeroes and ones that make us tick.

 

Favorite tracks: “Still Above the Ground”, “King”, “Cody Matthews”

 

 

 

Rating: Essential

 

You can purchase HAWN’s For a Ride here.

Tape Review: Whettman Chelmets’ “Giant Eyes & Infant Steps”

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Whettman Chelmets

Giant Eyes & Infant Steps

(Girly Girl Musik)

The first tape of 2019 from prolific and versatile Joplin instrumentalist Whettman Chelmets, Giant Eyes and Infant Steps, is a gentle autobiographical concept EP soundtracking the early moments of parenthood, most notably the muddled mishmash of emotions and states one experiences, including exhaustion, confusion, fear, and joy. It’s a complex balance to capture, but it’s struck well between its soft ambient/drone synth swathes pulling you towards rest, and weary, echoing post-rock guitar melodies quietly piercing through the clouds to stir you from a half-sleep (particularly notable on “TFW It’s 4:00 A.M. and You’ve Already Been Up 3 Times”). In contrast to the yin/yang harshness of Whettman Chelmets’ previous two tapes (the crushing industrial nihilism of Annihilate Your Masters and the blindingly hopeful shoegaze radiance of Alas… The Sun Is Shining, and You Are Still Alive), Giant Eyes and Infant Steps is generally more tonally subdued and intimate, allowing its compositions plenty of room to breathe unobstructed by walls of sound. Much of the EP could be categorized as the sounds of insomnia-induced delirium, which helps to accentuate closing track “She Says Dada”, a bright, bubbling, euphoric electronic piece (complete with baby talk samples) representing the moment your child first verbally acknowledges you, the priceless reward for stumbling and pushing through those sleepless nights.

Trippy, yet comforting and personal, Giant Eyes and Infant Steps is a transportive tape brimming with bewilderment and wonder, absorbing you into its snapshot scores of dropped pacifiers and first steps. Depending on your own life experiences, the melding of moods evoked will either come across as all too familiar or completely alien, but regardless, they’ll be recognized as beautiful and a little scary: just like parenting.

 

Favorite tracks: “She Says Dada”, “TFW It’s 4:00 A.M. and You’ve Already Been Up 3 Times”

 

 

Rating: Strongly Recommended

 

You can purchase Whettman Chelmets’ Giant Eyes and Infant Steps here.

Tape Review: Period Bomb’s “Lost and Found”

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Period Bomb

Lost and Found

(Already Dead Tapes & Records)

Period Bomb’s Lost and Found is a demo tape, except it’s not. Everything is rough, odd, almost skit-like, and yet fits together perfectly in a fully realized form, much like a patchwork quilt (perhaps battered with a few unseemly stains on it). Whether by design or not, you could call it a loose concept album about demos, much like The Residents’ Commercial Album is a loose concept album about pop music.

There are no perfect comparisons that can be made between Lost and Found and other albums, but Commercial Album is better than many. Much in the way that album took the core structural ‘requirements’ for radio-friendly music and warped them into a near unrecognizable form, Lost and Found takes the vague defining characteristics of demos and warps them into almost the opposite: while a demo is often an under-cooked sales pitch for what could be, this is an over-cooked statement on what will never be. Artistically, nothing feels ‘demo’ about this, it’s simply the form it takes. Voicemails about period blood and smelly vans, brief musical thoughts cut off before they’re allowed to meander too long, clips of the band literally ‘taking the piss’, weirdo superstar cameos from R. Stevie Moore and Ariel Pink, as well as a handful of more ‘fully formed’ art punk tracks such as “222” and “Rot w/ U”, all work together to conceptually encapsulate the iconoclastic D.I.Y. ethic. Lost and Found as a title may represent the idea that these recordings didn’t have a home, but now have found a home in each other. On a deeper level, however, thinking about the lost and found, it’s where misfits are put in a box. When you sort through the lost and found, you’re unboxing these misfits. In this case, misfit ideas. In that sense, Lost and Found serves as an unboxing of the ideas some might restrict or dilute, in the hopes that you’ll find something interesting and well-loved to take home and to heart.

It’s not an immediate listen: there’s a lot to sift through and the traditional sense of polish is not to be found here. If you’re willing to put in the work, however, look past the scuffs and dirt (or better yet, appreciate and embrace them), there’s a treasure trove of cool stuff to be unearthed.

 

Favorite tracks: “Status Quo”, “Rot w/ U”

 

 

Rating: Strongly Recommended

 

You can purchase Period Bomb’s Lost and Found here.

Tape Review: Slush’s “Birthday Breakfast 2001”

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Slush

Birthday Breakfast 2001

(Personal Militia Records)

Among the several definitions for the word ‘slush’, several words stick out between them: melted, mud, grease, trashy. So it’s fitting that Wisconsin’s Slush serves as something of a melting pot, an amorphous, stinking punk stew comprised of the weirdest and crudest elements of the weirdest and crudest alternative bands spanning from the late ’80s to the early ’00s. It takes a special band to make the moronic stimulating, and Birthday Breakfast 2001 sure is evidence of Slush being ‘special’.

You’d have a hard time pinning down Slush’s sound to that of just one band, but a handful that come to mind include NoMeansNo, Butthole Surfers, The Dead Milkmen, Primus, and Ween: technically proficient and creatively ambitious bands who filter their talents through a lens of absurdity and indecency, partly to ward off snobs, partly in the spirit of art imitating life (and vice versa) and that meaning that art should be a bit bizarre, chaotic, unrefined, and maybe even not all that ‘important’. “Star Wars” is a vicious and vitriolic rant about the series’ prequels being underrated when compared to the overrated sequels, complete with funk transition. Elsewhere, you’ll find songs about drinking bugs, throwing up on boats, looking for lost dogs, and more than one involving feet. Birthday Breakfast 2001 more or less loosely stays within a framework of wacky experimental hardcore garage punk, but there are also two more laid back electronic interludes in “Papa Murphy’s Pizza” and “Dads”, the latter perhaps being the funniest track on the album as the band members’ fathers introduce themselves over a floating, ambient, elevator music-like composition (“I’m Tom, I’m Stone’s dad, and I live a life of microaggressions”).

Birthday Breakfast 2001 is an excellent example of when not taking yourself overly seriously does nothing but work in your favor and aid in your ability to be creative. As silly as it is, it certainly can’t be called lazy, and there’s a constant sense of anticipation and unpredictability as you listen throughout the album’s brief run-time. It almost feels like Slush have no idea where they’re going next, so how could you possibly know? It may not be the most textbook ‘important’ album to come out this year, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more fun and inventive punk record, and that’s pretty important.

 

Favorite tracks: “Toe Biter”, “Star Wars”, “Oh Where Oh Where Has My Dog Gone”

 

 

 

Rating: Essential

 

You can purchase Slush’s Birthday Breakfast 2001 here.

Tape Review: Newagehillbilly’s “Amulet”

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Newagehillbilly

Amulet

(Sara Laughs)

The latest tape from Baltimore noise/electronic/experimental veteran Newagehillbilly is a terrifying twenty minute tapestry of textures formed from mangled and magnified chunks of distorted tape vore, cybernetic infections, haunted static, and blown-out, brain-juicing feedback, forming the Four Horsemen of the Amulet Apocalypse. While assuredly harsh, Amulet is less concerned with alienating listeners with sheer volume and pitch and more interested in crafting a horrific, yet engrossing atmosphere via dynamic composition: Amulet is never ‘quiet’, but it’s not afraid to become ‘quieter’ to manipulate the listeners into slowly and unwittingly dropping their guard in order to enhance the impact of its most powerful and cacophonous outbursts, and there’s a great amount of push-and-pull among its elements, behaving much like a demon attempting to escape a cursed object by means of various different tactics, efficiently testing formulated ratios of auditory violence until the seal relents at the perfect one and the fiend is free to wreak havoc in the open. By the end of “Amuleto”, the goal appears to have been achieved, as the first and only words of the tape are heard, then swiftly washed over and swallowed up by evil before the world fades to oblivion.

As daunting as that all may sound, Amulet is versatile, evocative, immersive, and again, by genre standards, palatable. If harsh noise is not something you’re accustomed to, you could pick worse places to start, and if it is, there’s plenty here to sink into and appreciate.

 

Favorite track: Release should be experienced as one whole piece

 

Rating: Recommended

 

You can purchase/download Newagehillbilly’s Amulet here or here.

Tape Review: Get a Life’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life or Debt”

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Get a Life

Our Band Could Be Your Life or Debt

(Forged Artifacts)

Despite the title, Get a Life’s Our Band Could Be Your Life or Debt does not present itself as a work of traditionally lofty ambition, and Chase DeMaster certainly doesn’t present himself as a model savior of independent rock music. If anything, he presents himself as a bit of a fuck up, botching chords and lyrics, espousing the merits of unemployment and frivolous spending, and playfully splashing about in the waters of stagnation, disillusionment, and isolation. If that doesn’t sound ‘polished’ or ‘mature’, that’s because it’s not. What it is though is honest. Relatable. Normal. Human. Our Band Could Be Your Life or Debt proudly displays its flaws like merits badges in a way artists, and people in general, are often terrified to do, especially when these flaws might seem too mundane to explore with great depth. Get a Life revels in the mundane, the dull, day-to-day struggle to make your life worth living not according to anyone else, but solely to yourself, and is absolutely thrilling because of it. It feels like a beautiful accident, a perfect storm, a microcosm of the ordinary, quiet hopelessness of modern American life and an absurdist laugh and shrug in the face of it all.

A healthy dose of ADD-riddled slacker savant pop genius certainly doesn’t hurt its cause either.

Opener “Get a Job” sets the tone for the tape and serves somewhat as the ‘Get a Life theme song’, a anthemic march in opposition to ‘getting a life’. Chords awkwardly buzz, warp, and rattle as if emitted from a oft-used toy (exactly how DeMaster sees his guitar), as DeMaster shouts the rally cry “I’M GOING NOWHERE FAST / HIT ME UP IF YOU NEED A RIDE”, inviting listeners to join him in attempt to abandon the stresses involved in feeling like you constantly need to move forward on tracks you don’t really want to be on. The next song “2050”, imagines him thirty years in the future after having worked within the confines of modern American capitalist industry: ideas and plans that never reach fruition, money slowly accruing interest in a bank account that you never spend because if you do, you stop accruing interest and you need it for when your owners lose use for you, etc. First World Problems, but real problems, the things that help ensure security but stifle hopes and dreams, the enjoyment of life, the whole ‘point’ of life to begin with.

“What You Deserve” and “All Fun No Gum” really bring to the forefront a lazy, but apt comparison that could be made between Get a Life and The Strokes. DeMaster’s vocals sound eerily similar to Julian Casablancas on these tracks, minus the need to try to sound ‘cool’. The Strokes were also never quite so fucking loud as Get a Life is on “What You Deserve”, an absolutely massive noise rock banger and ode to spending what you have (and what you don’t) while you’re still able to enjoy it and haven’t completely wasted away yet. “All Fun No Gum” is a sad, but ultimately hopeful tale of DeMaster looking back on childhood and the lie we’re told as kids: that we can be anything we want to be. The song compares identities to costumes, pointing out that not everyone can even afford to dress up as who they’d like to be, let alone actually be who they’d like to be. The hope comes in the acceptance of this: letting go and allowing yourself to just be ‘you’, no matter if the world might find ‘you’ weird or unspectacular. The A-side closes on “Slow Me Down”, a track about persevering through hardships where DeMaster makes it clear that his faults and emotional wounds will never heal or go away, but he’ll live on not in spite of them, but because of them (“Don’t I look good with this limp?”).

On the B-side, we open with “2 Plus 2 Equals 5”, a joyful, spastic jamboree crammed with memorable melody after memorable melody, adorned with spirited piano garnish and initially jarring, seemingly tangentially shifts that smartly loop their way back into cohesion. “Here Comes the Fun” is a bright, chiming jangle number that manages to call back to the clothes motif established in “All Fun No Gum”, with a section about DeMaster selling his shirts to an Australian on Etsy and joking about how the new owner gets to have his fun now. What follows is probably the most whacked out track on the album, “Spotless”. It alternates between bouncy, cutesy indietronica style passages that transform into gigantic, heavy, doom and drone form waves of noise, electronics, and modulated vocals, symbolizing the ups and downs of DeMaster’s relationship with his girlfriend.

Then we have “Dungeon”:

There are not adequate words to express just how plainly and profoundly ethereal and devastating this song is. It’s a swirling, floating, ungraspable cloud of sound and emotion written simply, almost vaguely and with multiple meanings, so as to work like a Rorschach. It hurts though. Every variation hurts. It sounds like losing people you care about to me, at least mostly. It still feels like there’s more there.

Our Band Could Be Your Life or Debt is messy, confused, and deeply personal in a way not heard in indie rock since Twin Fantasy. What makes this all the more remarkable is that even more so than that record, this feels like lightning in a bottle, brilliance via moments of unfiltered simplicity and purity. Each song here was written and recorded in a day each, not to be fussed with, leaving all of its wonderful quirks and foibles intact. Our Band Could Be Your Life or Debt is not a masterpiece by design.

Nonetheless, it is.

 

Favorite tracks: (All of them, but especially) “Get a Job”, “All Fun No Gum”, “2 Plus 2 Equals 5”, “Dungeon”

 

 

Rating: Masterpiece

 

You can purchase Get a Life’s Our Band Could Be Your Life or Debt here or here.

Tape Review: Squeeze’s “Argybargy”

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Squeeze

Argybargy

(A&M Records)

Squeeze is an interesting band within musical history’s canon in the sense that they seem to be over-hyped or under-hyped at every turn. Early in their career, Squeeze’s songwriting duo of Tilbrook (music) and Difford (lyrics) was propped up by the British press as the heir apparent to Lennon and McCartney. Most of you probably know Squeeze, they’ve overall undoubtedly been a successful band, but that also means knowing that their presence in the social consciousness is not nearly as omnipotent as that of The Beatles. That doesn’t necessarily speak to quality though, so let’s take a look at what is generally considered to be Squeeze’s best album, 1980’s Argybargy.

Talking about Argybargy in sequence definitely doesn’t mean saving the best for last. As was (and still is in many instances) commonplace for mainstream-aiming pop albums, this album is front-loaded with pop gold, particularly in the first two tracks, arguably the two best of the band’s entire career. “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)” is about as perfect as any British pop song has ever been, and an excellent example as to why, to an extent, such hype was warranted. Your standard pop tune is often structured with the chorus receiving the lion’s share of the attention: the verses and bridges need to get you there and not suck along the way. Ultimately though, it’s the chorus you’re there for. What Squeeze, at their best, do so well, is make everything count. Tilbrook’s feel for structure is obviously important to this, but it’s really Difford’s lyrics that drive this point home. The greatest trick Difford, and Squeeze, ever played was demonstrating that you can be clever without being pretentious and fun without being silly. At a cursory listen, it can be very easy to dismiss Squeeze as just another bouncy new wave group, but the answers as to why so many are smitten by them can be found in the verse lyrics to “Pulling Mussels”. Difford is able to painted detailed, novelesque pictures with observational humor, within the limited confines of traditional pop form, like exceedingly few others. Verses such as “Squinting faces at the sky / A Harold Robbins paperback / Surfers drop their boards and dry / And everybody wants a hat” and “Shrinking in the sea so cold / Topless ladies look away / A he-man in a sudden shower / Shelters from the rain”, this efficient, vivid, playful language, married with Tilbrook’s tight, focused, digestible songwriting, make Squeeze what they are: pop music for everyone. “Pulling Mussels” is easily the smartest song ever written about people trying to get fucked at the beach on holiday, a peerless gem of high-brow horniness, and Squeeze at the absolute peak of their powers.

Lead single “Another Nail In My Heart” is nearly as good, with its happy, upbeat, hook-laden form masking lyrics about the end of a relationship, the music putting on a cheerful facade for the hurt within. These two tracks alone make Squeeze worship make sense, and if the entire album was at this level, it’d be one of the best pop albums of all-time.

But it’s not quite there.

This isn’t to say the rest is bad, far from it, but nothing else on the album equals the absolute magic of the opening two. “Separate Beds” and “Vicky Verky” (the latter’s “With her hair up in his fingers / The fish and chips smell lingers / Under amber streetlamps / She holds the law in her hands / The moistness of the damp night / Falls silent through the lamplight / Although she’s only fourteen / She really knows her courting” being another particularly excellent example of Difford’s writing ability) perhaps come the closest, both very strong songs in their own right. “Wrong Side of the Moon” is also really great, if seeming a bit out of place, a shuffling doo-wop throwback fronted by Jools Holland. “Misadventure”, “If I Didn’t Love You”, and “There at the Top” are all solid enough as well, but we’ve got three pretty sore thumbs in the form of “I Think I’m Go Go”, “Farfisa Beat”, and “Here Comes That Feeling”. “I Think I’m Go Go” is out of place, but not in a good way like “Wrong Side of the Moon”, sounding like an underdeveloped outtake that would be more at home on their self-titled debut. “Farfisa Beat” is actually mildly irritating, especially after such intelligent material, with a canned, repetitive rockabilly guitar line and dumb, lazy lyrics (“Flash flash mirror ball / Stereo and disco / Wow wow ain’t she tall / Moved off my feet / To the farfisa beat” isn’t winning any awards). “Here Comes That Feeling” is an interesting experiment in Syd Barrett-like weirdness, but ultimately doesn’t really succeed in coming into its own. Its inclusion isn’t nearly as egregious as the other two, however, showing some ambition beyond ‘label-mandated filler’.

So where do we land on Squeeze and, specifically, Argybargy? It’s a very good, sometimes brilliant pop album by a very good, sometimes brilliant pop band. A flawed one, particularly towards the middle, but one containing two of the best songs of its time and plenty of other enjoyable ones, and one worth remembering, listening to, and writing about nearly forty years later. Tilbrook and Difford perhaps aren’t the most consistent songwriting duo ever, but they’re consistent enough, and with a couple songs like “Pulling Mussels” and “Another Nail In My Heart”, consistent enough is more than good enough.

 

Favorite tracks: “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)”, “Another Nail In My Heart”

 

 

Rating: Strongly Recommended