Good albums of 2016, part 1

Ramonda Hammer – Whatever That Means

whatever-that-means

This band really did something for me this year, although I don’t have a particularly good idea of what that something actually is. I saw them the first time with zero expectations, and their music struck me in a way that doesn’t normally happen. They’re all amazing performers, as skilled as they are energetic and committed, but there’s also something more, behind the technical aspects. I guess it’s what you’d normally call “heart,” but I usually try to be a little more precise than that.

Straight guitar lines and consistently anguished vocals give the songs a basic angst-ballad backbone, but there’s quite a lot going on on top of that, fleshing them out in many directions at once. Lofty and spacious lead guitar parts add both precision and intensity, expansive drumming pushes outward as well as forward, and the bass jolts up and down to stitch everything together. It’s all in the service of broad song structures that reach out as far as they can while still holding solid (the closer is at least three different songs fused together). In a sense, there’s nothing notable about any of this, it’s what is conventionally referred to as a “rock band,” but that concept is a real concept that exists for a reason. It’s four different people doing different things that, through physical and emotional intelligence, resolve themselves into one thing that could not have been created in any other way. I think now is a good time to remember how this works and why it matters.

And while the sound is somewhat complicated, not so much leading you down a path as overwhelming and then gradually devouring you, underlying it all is an extreme simplicity. “Angsty” doesn’t really do the vocals justice; the singer pretty much always sounds like she’s in between crying jags. Opening the album with the words “It’s hard to explain myself,” the lyrics are often very basic sentiments, drawn out and awkwardly phrased (“I make sounds and I make them sound good, but they might not be the thing”). “If, Then” moves slowly, emphasizing the indirectness of its title, but this is where it ends up:

If you’re hearing this song, then I’m something

If you’re singing along, then it’s something

If you’re crying like I am I guess that’s something

I’m not the only one who feels like nothing

Except that then the album is also conflicted on this point. “Goddamn Idiot” concedes that “these are just my thoughts; they’re not always right, but they’re always loud,” “See” specifically accuses itself of a lack of depth, and then “Out of Style” is an extended metaphor. The result is something that’s completely straightforward, while also being, in the same sense, hopelessly tangled. It’s all loud and grungy and anxious, but it’s also got a real dramatic sweep to it – not in any kind of epic sense, just in the sense that it’s the inherent drama of being a person. “Just know that I’m trying, I promise.”

None of this is actually what I’m trying to figure out, though. Analysis is all fun and games until you realize you have no idea where you’re going with it; you can explain everything right up until you get to the part that matters. But for now I’ve got about a third of an idea. “Chaotic” has been popping into my head a lot. The line is “if it’s not chaotic, it’s not real,” which first of all is literally true. The universe is just a big pile of objects; “order” is something that we impose on top of it, while the things themselves remain as they are, impervious to our attempts to understand them. Reality always slithers out from under our concepts. Accordingly, within the song, the line is a little difficult to decode – it’s drawn out and dramatized such that the cadence and the meter are both misleading, and it’s followed up by a wordless version of the same howled phrase. So when the song comes into my head it’s not as an idea or even in response to anything in particular. It’s just a sound, a raw sensation that’s inside of me. It’s a new part of you that’s going to be with you going forward. Even if you don’t know what it means.


La Sera – Music for Listening to Music to

music-for-listening-to-music-to

“La Sera goes country” is not a phrase I was ever expecting to offer commentary on, but, luckily for all of us, these people know what the hell they’re doing. Also that’s kind of the point. New things are new. Simultaneously brightened by sunshine and haunted by sorrow, it’s an easy listen carrying hard feelings. It’s focused a little more towards a solid guitar sound, but with parts that slide and jab as they flow. In the same sense, the lyrics take cute angles and add dangerous twists, unearthing confusion, misery, regret, and even terror, all delivered with a smile that unnerves more than it comforts. So, oddly enough, this clean and gorgeous album ends up making the world look like a much scarier place. “When there’s one song left to sing, that’s when the devil brings you closer to me.” (More here.)


 

Katy Goodman and Greta Morgan – Take It, It’s Yours

take-it-its-yours

Describing this as a covers album that redoes punk songs as pop ballads makes it sound both obvious and bad, but it’s times like this that having faith becomes important. I thought I knew what was going to happen here, and I wasn’t exactly wrong, but listening to it was a more affecting experience than I was anticipating. The level of commitment and passion on this thing causes its implementation to significantly transcend its conceptualization. The “hey it’s that song” effect is almost entirely drowned out by the clarity and power of these interpretations, so much so that they not only stand on their own but at times feel like the original, even the correct versions of these songs. The reason this is not just a good covers album but one of the better albums of this year in general is that actually listening and paying attention to it gives you an experience that can’t be concisely explained or even simply understood after you’ve had it.

The neat thing about covers is that they instantiate the idea that having multiple perspectives on anything worthwhile is both valid and necessary. It’s not so much that these songs are radically transformed, some are and some aren’t, it’s that these arrangements draw out the heart of each song, conveying something new but also familiar, in exactly the way that writing a new song does. But the context also matters; this album implicitly addresses history, politics, gender, the present, and, if you’re really paying attention, it might even suggest a possible future. Because the other thing about covers is that all any of us are doing in any case is collecting various scraps we find along the road and attempting to fashion them into something workable, so what this album is doing isn’t anything different. It’s a direct demonstration of not just the fact that you have the power to create interpretations that work for you, but of the fact that you have to, and of how to do it. Take it; it’s yours.


Springtime Carnivore – Midnight Room

midnight-room

The concept here is straightforward enough: this album takes place in the shadow realm between days, exploring the tiny spaces that hold us trapped in circumstances. The whole album is produced to sound like it’s coming from some kind of phantom dimension. Each song is based on simple loopy parts on top of a basic synth drone, like the whole thing is stuck walking the wrong way on an escalator, while at the same time the production is huge and reverby, and the sonorous vocals feel completely unfettered, slow and deliberate by choice rather than constraint. There’s a consistent low-level discomfort – the drums on the opener fail to come in on the first rise, tying themselves instead to the droning background of the song. Even when “Under the Spell” goes full disco, it still remains muffled in the fog.

While it’s all very torch-song-y, it’s calm and strong in a way that inspires envy more than pity. Its even temper holds it back from triumph, but also forces it to keep its head above raw sorrow. It pretty much stays where it is the entire time, never coming to any kind of resolution, but it does so while introducing complexity rather than falling back on simplicity – the howling vocals on “Raised by Wolves” implicate the singer in her own criticism. Actually, the contrast between the tightly constrained songwriting and the soaring vocals that take their time in spelling out long phrases creates the inverse of the album’s conceptual space: not the small darkness that chokes out hope, but the vision that can see the sky from anywhere, darkness or no. Which of course means there’s ultimately nothing phantasmic about this album at all; it’s in exactly the position that all of us are in, all the time. “If we’re side by side, I’ll go mile for mile / We may not return, we may never learn, but we go on ahead, into the avalanche.”


The Coathangers – Nosebleed Weekend

nosebleed-weekend

I guess this band got famous or something? Relatively speaking. I really have no idea how these things work. Anyway, they started out as an especially garagey garage band, simple, punchy guitar lines and raw vocals seasoned with a light country verve, but they’ve cleaned up their act a fair amount. This album actually opens by threatening to go a little too far in that direction with the steady and serene “Perfume” – the guitar sound is almost unpleasantly pretty, the vocals disturbingly sane – but the pointy bits start to poke back out soon enough. While this album is smartly structured and even a little bit polished, it’s still a punch to the face. The contrast between “Perfume” and “Squeeki Tiki” almost comes across as a deliberate joke, going from “Summer stole the perfume from my eyes” to “You can have it! I don’t want that shit!”

The band holds on to their scratchy energy and silly charisma (when they play live, they switch instruments a few times to do some of their extra-weird shouty songs) while finding clever new angles for their songs, from the alienated yearning of “I Don’t Think So” to the casual violence of the title track. “Excuse Me?” modulates between creepy crawl and noisy wrath. “Squeeki Tiki” has no high end other than the vocals and the literal squeaky toys, making it sound particularly isolated and deranged. “Down Down” does what it says, but then unexpectedly breaks into a sprint right in the middle. “Make It Right” is straight and focused, barreling hard down one angle, while “Watch Your Back” contorts itself all over the place, using the interplay between the two vocalists – one rough and menacing, one bubbly and psychotic – to both enrich the song and synthesize two parallel perspectives on the subject matter. And “Copycat” closes things off by making sure that nobody gets too comfortable. “A smile can be a frown” – so watch your back.

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