Well it seems the gray curtain of February has lifted and left us blinking in the slightly brighter month of March. So it seems like the perfect time from me to finish up the WD 20 track rundown of 2014. I might change the tagline on here to: “Wanton Dilettantery: as timely as a Summer advent calendar.”
Anyway, here it is: my 20 songs of 2014, including a lengthy doom workout, some indie rock noodlings, a hefty dose of shouty alt-rock, a heart rendingly fragile piano piece and whatever the hell Mazel Tov is. Despite my best efforts it’s too all-over-the-place to hang together as a well curated mixtape. But as 20 individual tracks it shows that 2014 was a pretty great year for music. But then they all are if you look hard enough – there’s an unholy amount of it released every month, if you aren’t enjoying it you aren’t looking in the right places. And if you can’t be bothered WD has got your back – sporadically bringing you good music long after it was in any way relevant. That’s the WD guarantee.
Part 20 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
Trust Shellac to announce their return after another 7 year absence with a decidedly silly song about Dude Adventures featuring a Maiden-esque galloping bassline behind it’s chorus. Only in their sardonic little world could that possibly make sense. Their collective tongue has rarely been out of their cheek in the past twenty-odd years. The only really surprise with this and a fair chunk of the rest of Dude Incredible is how immediate it is. There’s often the sense that you’re being held at arms length by Albini and co, and whilst Dude Incredible is hardly a warm embrace it does feel a little less hostile. Their usual lockstep meticulous approach to alt rock is still the same as it ever was, it just feels a little more playful, a little more like they’re enjoying themselves.
As well they might – despite their sporadic approach to recording and touring they’ve earned the right to do whatever they like. Not that they’d ever have asked permission for that in the first place, but still. It would be quite a stretch to say they’re mellowing in their old age – the riffs still hit hard and they’re as abrasive as ever. But they’ve rarely been described as sounding fun. And yet here we are. Dude Incredible, the song and a fair percentage of the record at large, is a record merrily bringing the smiles between bursts of tightly wound guitar aggression. And shockingly it suits the old curmudgeons rather well.
Part 19 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
Were you there? When that third/fourth wave of emo (that had nothing to do with Rites of Spring or Embrace or any of that but was in fact pop punk with fewer dick jokes) hit? Those perfect summers when Jimmy Eat World, Rival Schools, Saves the Day and y’know a bunch of other guys ruled a small fraction of the airwaves with their angsty-yet-catchy pop songs? Just before My Chemical Romance showed up and brought eyeliner and general awfulness to the proceedings? Well, were you?
Actually I’m not sure what I mean by ‘there’ – me, I was in sweaty rock clubs in Barnsley pleading with the DJ for them to not play Killing in the Name for the third time of the night because it was ancient even then and I was so damn bored of it. A lot of people my age had the bad luck to live through not one but two perennially unfashionable musical fads that will haunt us for the rest of their lives. We got nu-metal, which no amount of ironic appreciation can stop being awful. Then we got ’emo.’ Oh, to be a teenager at the turn of the millenium, huh?
Now I can look back on emo fondly to be fair. I loved those big, heart on sleeve choruses over pop punk 3 chord hammerings and still have a soft spot for the energetic and overly ernest. Braid were old hands even back then and more an aficionados band, a we were here first, punk sort of band, by virtue of good/bad timing (depending on whether respect and acclaim or cold hard cash is your metric for these things). It’s sort of ironic then that in the midst of a minor emo revival Braid should return in their most poppy guise, sounding perfectly ready to mop up that miserable youth dollar over a decade too late. It’s pretty funny, not least because of just how natural a fit it sounds – East End Hollows is amongst the most straight up poppy things they’ve ever done and undoubtedly one of the best. It captures a perfect sense of bittersweet nostalgia- even though half of the references don’t fit my experiences they still make me pine for days of late-teen confusion.
“This is the life!” it goes. “Another drink another lifetime of regret.” They sing with that perfect mix of warmth and sadness with even a tinge of bitterness that makes up real nostalgia. The backing vocals oooh in disarming harmony, the chords straight forward and catchy but just awkward enough not to sound like Green Day feeling fancy. It doesn’t just hark back to those days that should have been their heyday but somehow weren’t quite – it’s a song that stands happily amongst them, superseding all but the best of them. The comeback business is always an awkward game to play, especially when your popularity as a defunct band dwarfs what you ever had when you were active, but Braid manage to pull it off with dignity, with style, and above all with genuinely fantastic songs. “Another song so we can sing along,” indeed. I may not be in the club with a small cadre of dudes in the know singing along anymore but if you’re out walking the streets of Cardiff late at night you might look up and catch a glimpse of a man in headphones clearly half drunk dancing gracelessly on a balcony with pure abandon. If you wonder what song he’s singing along to it’s a decent bet it’s East End Hollows.
Part 18 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
Well, this is just ridiculous.
If you ask me humanity needs to collectively agree to do the right thing and invest in preserving Prince’s brain (let’s not waste time worrying about consent – this is way too important) so that we may one day create an immortal musical cyborg. “But that’s madness,” you may well respond. In rebuttal I invite you to press play on the above youtube embedamajig and listen to Mazel Tov, the closest thing we have to a preview of what we can expect should we enact this radical plan o’ mine.
I rest my case.
This is the third album… turned out to be Adebisi Shank’s swansong, which with the benefit of hindsight sort of makes sense – though they had never been afraid to sound, shall we say, a little silly over the years they’d never actively courted the ludicrous like they did on ..Third.., and Mazel Tov is the weirdest and most unexpected product of that. The robot voice that acted as the closest thing they had to vocals over the band’s run is finally given a full pop song to itself, complete with 80s action movie sax, bouncy post-disco baseline and the catchiest non-human chorus you’re ever likely to here. It shouldn’t work; it’s a step to far, it’s too unironically joyful and earnest to even qualify as pastiche or parody. But then that’s why it works – they commit to it 100% and manage to distill pure, unadulterated joy down into digestible sonic form. As parting shots go Adebisi Shank nailed a perfect bullseye and bowed out, purposefully, on absolute peak form. Few bands can say the same.
Part 17 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
When I heard Ex Hex’s Rips the band that immediately came to mind was Obits; the post-Hot Snakes project of Rick Froberg. They don’t sound all that alike but what you’ve got with both is rock veterans keeping it simple, relying on sweet guitar tones and simple pop rock structures. But whereas Froberg’s voice wasn’t quite strong enough to make it work all the time Mary Timony sounds like she was made for this.
Part 16 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
Sometimes it pays to save the best till last. I’m Not Part of Me is the kind of hook filled call to arms that you’d usually find announcing a record rather than playing it out (and “It starts right now..” would obviously be ideal opening lyrics), but it’s such a massive, towering track it there’s a risk that as an opener it could have dwarfed everything that came after it, making the remainder of the tracks, as good as they are, feel a bit like an anticlimax. At the end it works as a culmination of everything that has come before, on this record and probably further back still, summed up in four and a half minutes, a microcosm of what Cloud Nothings are and could be.
Despite the typically angst ridden subject matter it ends an adrenaline fueled high, leaving you twitching to hit the play button and start over. “I’m learning how to be here and nowhere else” goes the titular line and Cloud Nothings do their utmost to will that into action through sheer rock bluster and heart-on-sleeve bellowing. “I’m not I’m not you/you’re a part of me/you’re a part of me.” They’re the kind of words you sing when you’re heading off into the sunset, a little sad at leaving things behind but looking forward to what lies ahead. Here and Nowhere Else is the record on which Cloud Nothings really found themselves, where everything clicked into place. Whatever lies beyond that sunset I’m willing to bet it’s gonna sound good.
Part 14 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
On Stationary Silo came packing only one weapon. It’s a hard one to describe: there’s a short arpeggio left to reverberate whilst a dirty, fuzzed out bass barges into the signal, distorting it and making it something strange, woozy, slightly off. It’s bass used like the more powerful weapons on Geometry Wars 2, sending the sound waves hurtling and rippling like the grid that makes up the backdrop of that game (if this reference means nothing to you I implore you to rectify that). The drums try to get a lock on this strange groove but feel like they’re sliding off – perhaps it’s just musical illiteracy on my part but whenever I’m listening to Stationary I can’t get a handle on what they’re doing. It’s like they’re almost locked into a beat but things are just stuttered enough so that it seems to never quite achieve it. And yet it works. It’s a potent enough weapon to fuel a song; it’s such a discombobulating affair they don’t need another.
The creation of it’s parent record Work was by all accounts spent mostly in front of computers manipulating the guitar sounds with meticulous precision until they sounded just wrong. Which sounds about right – it fits the industrial, mechanical vibe of the album. And it’s too good an effect to have been an accident. As for the rest of the song, well, the vocals are fine and fit the song but once it let’s you out of it’s haze you can barely remember a word that’s been sung. And whilst there are some other effects in the mix but mostly it’s just that one, persistent, awkward rhythm driving on, eventually deconstructing and reconstructing itself that makes it. Sometimes doing one thing well is enough.
Part 13 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
Even Mark Kozalek’s biggest fans, and probably the man himself, would admit he can be a bit of an arsehole. After Benji became his must successful album, both critical and commercially, in a long while he opted to celebrate by picking an unedifying media ruck with the War on Drugs culminating in the tragically titled The War On Drugs Can Suck My Dick. Whilst musically I’m always likely to be on Team Kozalek it was all a bit depressing. It came across as the immature response of a grouchy old man.
Which is also how he came across on Benji’s immediate predecessor, the tetchy, trying Among the Leaves, in which he introduced us to a new speak-singing style by moaning his way through an albums worth of weary travelling musician gripes in first person. Benji gave his new style a focus – in reacting to grief and searching for answers all his faults, clumsy rhymes and relentless focus on himself made for a very human response to tragedy.
The record’s most emotional moment happens to be when he drops not just the first person and the ever present ‘I’ but also the guitar altogether. Over an electric piano he sings about the small details about his subject, the titular Jim Wise (really John Wise who was sentenced to 6 years in prison in 2013), and tells his story in the most succinct and matter of fact way possible in the chorus: “Jim Wise mercy killed his wife at her bedside/then he put the gun to his head and it jammed and he didn’t die.” It’s so straight forward it almost comes across as the blackest of humor, an incredibly misjudged punchline. But Kozalek realises that this story needs no commentary, it doesn’t need the interjection of his thoughts and feelings – it doesn’t even need him to get angry at the injustice. It speaks for itself. He paints the portrait of an ordinary old man who happened to have a bracelet around his ankle and couldn’t leave the house. The only time Kozalek inserts himself into the story it’s to spot a bright red cardinal sitting on an empty bird bath in the garden once lovingly tended by Jim’s wife.
Kozalek asks a lot of big questions on Benji – how could his second cousin and his uncle die in similar freak aerosol fires? How is it just that serial killer Richard Ramirez died at a ripe old age of natural causes? Why is it that mass shootings have become an accepted part of American life? The question he doesn’t ask the is how a man who euthanized his wife out of love can be treated like a cold blooded murderer. Maybe it’s afraid of the answer. Or maybe it’s enough to just tell the story and let the sadness and sense of justice to seep in naturally. He saves his most beautiful melody of the record to tell the story of a self evident travesty of justice. He may be an arsehole sometimes but Jim Wise was a well timed reminder of his deep well of empathy and ability to capture so much with such simple, plaintive words and a sad little tune.
Part 12 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
Strand of Oaks’ HEAL was the sound of a painfully inwardly focused songwriter exploding outwards and Shut In was moment where Timothy Showater emerging from the dark and blinking in the sunlight. “Now I just get loaded/never leave my house” he intones in the first verse, “it’s taken way too long/to figure this out.” With that realisation under his belt he moves onto a chorus which is as optimistic an ode to social hermits and borderline agoraphobics as you could ever hope to hear, “Know my name/know I mean it/it’s not as bad as it seems/and we try in our own way to get better/even if we’re alone.” The ringing piano chords that back him and the overly polite guitar line that follows almost lean towards bland Coldplay-style universality but it’s reigned in with a bedraggled guitar solo with the rough edges tripping into the red left on.
On Shut in Showater proved that this sort of widescreen pop number can be done without ungritting the teeth and coating everything in a sickly sheen and in doing so produced one of the years most wonderfully hopeful songs, the most redemptive note throughout the punishingly emotional HEAL. Where Showater goes from here, now he’s out of his shell and with the wounds that influenced HEAL presumably, well, healed, is anyone’s guess. Given how starkly brilliant the open-hearted standout tracks on HEAL sound it’s fair to say it’ll be worth following him wherever he may end up.
Part 11 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
“Delay pedals and 27 years of disappointment” is the quote that’s pretty much become Posse’s tagline. It’s been repeated so many times they probably wish they never said it. But then the loose, wandering guitar solo that knits together the three verses of Shut Up sounds exactly like that. The disappointment hasn’t created any sort of anger or bitterness – theirs is more a serene, resigned zen tinged with a hint of weary irony. Which not everyone shares; it’s safe to say the relationship Shut Up describes is a little uneven. One person does all the talking, the other struggles not to cut them short.“You overwork all the time/And you’re tired again/And I stand, and I nod/And I sigh and stretch/I’m gonna try and get a haircut/ A shampoo and a shave/And shut up.”
One side is doing all the heavy lifting – the other is barely present. Are they self aware enough to realise they’ve got the sweeter end of the deal and keeping their mouth shut? Or are they willing the active half of the conversation to be quiet? It’s not quite clear. But as the song ascends into beautiful slacker bliss it’s easy to choose which side of the coin you’d rather be on. Is it selfish? Unproductive? Yeah, probably. But close your eyes and get lost in the enveloping guitar haze and it doesn’t matter. Sink into the warm rippling backing vocals and let the song wash over you. And shut up.