Good albums of 2016, part 3

Tancred – Out of the Garden


So I saw this band open for somebody and I honestly almost missed them completely; I only caught the tail end of their set, but they sounded pretty good and I got a good feeling about them (“Pretty Girls” made an immediate impression; it’s a song that’s just weird and silly enough to work). So it’s a good thing I ended up checking them out, because this is a really excellent album. Seriously; I just relistened to it and I was blown away all over again. This was pure luck on my part, but I guess you could take it as kind of a lesson. You have to pay attention and follow up on shit. You can’t just show up, eat your complimentary shrimp cocktail and leave.

Sound-wise this isn’t a revolution or anything, in large part it’s your basic wordy head-case rock band (that’s actually the joke in the first track name), but the songwriting here is extremely killer. It’s constructed out of the basic ingredients of thrashy guitars and monologuey vocal lines, but there are a lot of smart flourishes and invigorating touches – the comedown at the end of “Bed Case,” the superconductive transition between “Hang Me” and “Sell My Head,” the dip before the chorus on “Poise,” the fake ending on “Control Me” – that give it an insistent personality and also make it an exciting, forward-sounding listen. Also on display here is an extreme facility for sharp endings.

It’s an album that takes you on a journey, but it’s one of those journeys where you get lost at every turn. “The dark can take you for a ride. Fair warning.” “Bed Case” is a disorienting intro based on a deep emotional ambiguity, and “Pretty Girls” is definitely not a calm or satisfying ending. It gets dark and introspective pretty frequently (“Not Likely,” “Pens,” “Sell My Head”), but it’s just as quick to lash out (“Rabid like a dog, I could take you out. Don’t test me”); actually, it tends to do both at once. It stomps and storms as often as it shrinks and shivers, and it synthesizes both of those affective styles into one maelstrom. It spins wildly through angst, black humor (“I would kill but a girl’s got poise”), horror, and viciousness, all while being deeply at odds with itself (“It’s crazy how stable I am”), and there’s a disturbing emphasis throughout on casual self-annihilation (“Write my name, cross it out in shame, burn it up, blow away.”).

As the title implies, this album is about living after the fall, but it’s not trying to fix anything or even trying to figure anything out. It’s just about what it’s like to exist in this situation, and the results aren’t pretty. The opener asks itself, “Do I want to save the world, or just cut out its insides?”, and as things go on it becomes pretty clear what the answer is. It’s not depressing in terms of tone, but a lot of the lyrical content is really deeply resigned, while also making frequent use of violent metaphors (“kill” seems to be the singer’s favorite word). Nothing here makes a grab for positivity or even hope, and all that self-annihilation stuff, while not appearing to directly indicate suicidality, takes its toll nonetheless. The songs don’t take the angles you expect them to take, and in not doing so they unearth disturbing emotions as familiar as they are weird (the album art is oriented wrong and it only has a fragment of a person on it). “Bed Case” establishes that it takes place not in between heaven and hell, but in the space where they overlap. “Poise” doesn’t try to make a feminist statement; it just admits that “I would kill to be one of the boys,” and then puts the emphasis on “kill.” “Control Me” inverts the usual positive spin on its subject matter, “Hang Me” is a self-directed witch hunt, and “Pretty Girls” is pretty harsh statement of defeat.

But what all of this actually means is that this is an album of productive irony. If you actually heard someone say, “Kill me just like all your other puppet girls; make me want you,” and you thought they meant it, that would be pretty fucking horrifying, but of course a) if you’re actually saying that, it means you understand what’s going on, and b) even more of course, this is a song, so what it’s actually expressing is the fact that the truth of the situation is being faced and dealt with rather than papered over and ignored. Meaning that this actually is the response to this situation. The gap between the album’s hopeless negativity and its badass rock intensity isn’t a gap; “Pretty Girls” actually is a big rock ending. As dark as this album is, what it has is better than brightness. It has vitality. It’s the farthest thing from a final solution, but, y’know, a lot of the time that’s a good thing. It’s the complete inverse of insisting on one correct politics of response (which is good, because we all know by now how bad that sucks): it’s an insistence on honesty and engagement, no matter how fucked up you have to get in order to do that. “I’m dead into the things you want me to shout”; “I’d feel better in a crypt than up there with you”; “Inside your claws, a million snakes”; “Show me all your teeth.” Maybe none of this is any good, maybe it’s even worse than nothing, but it is where we are right now, and no one is going anywhere until we understand that. “This is how we learn to be happy: the hard way.”


Kristin Kontrol – X-Communicate


So I guess Dum Dum Girls is over, which is kind of sad, since that was one of the great rock bands of this decade. These things happen, though. Death goes on. Actually, this isn’t that huge of a departure; it’s comprehensible as a follow-up to Too True, should you be inclined towards such an understanding. But while this album isn’t the radical transition implied by its title, it is the paradox implied by its title: a simultaneous ejecting and bringing together. This doesn’t just happen to be a pop album; it’s an explicit exploration of pop genres (“Skin Shed” is a radio song about radio songs: “is my voice really this soft?”), and it’s also an exercise in contradictions (“Skin Shed” is also about communicating through a mediated distance and is also also about bleeding). It tries to “show a little bit of what’s inside,” but this isn’t an uncomplicated endeavor – “we are nothing if not going through the motions.” So there’s dance rock on “Drive The Night,” and then a misty piano ballad on “What Is Love,” and then “Smoke Rings” resolves the album into a “general malaise.” A lot of the lyrics are simple, but the range of the music and the air of mystery in the vocals make the whole thing less straightforward than it seems like it ought to be. It shows how obvious things aren’t obvious, change isn’t change, and simple things aren’t simple. “You don’t need to change yourself,” but “change is hard, but I need a change of heart,” but “I don’t need change, I just need to reacquaint myself with you.”

Big horns dramatize “Show Me,” opening the album with a powerful statement of purpose – though it’s one that’s phased as a hypothetical. “(Don’t) Wannabe” takes the same idea from the opposite angle, using a soft and willowy approach to show what ideals look like from the ground. “Didn’t we swear to be transparent?” An industrial assembly-line beat gives “Face 2 Face” an ironic impersonality, illuminating the implicit paradox of “showing you the real me.” “X-Communicate,” a song about doubt within commitment and hiding within passion, cries out from inside of a crowded club beat. “White Street” overwhelms its rock guitars with a constant avalanching beat – “I’ve never been able to say no to love.”

Throughout the whole thing, the implied religious angle stays implied – there are a handful of scattered references, but the actual question of what the connection is between religion (or lack thereof) and love (or lack thereof) is never directly addressed. Or, rather, the answer isn’t given because it is the thing that is being raised as a challenge. That’s why everything on the album is written in terms of questions: it’s the question, and you’re the answer. “Show me what you’re capable of. Is it love?”


Sex Stains (s/t)


So I saw this band open for somebody (yes, that is how all my stories start, thank you for asking) and I was like “Oh cool, they’re like a jazzed-up version of Bratmobile,” and then like two months later I figured out that the person in the band who sounds like Allison Wolfe is actually Allison Wolfe. I’m good at noticing things. Anyway, that’s not really the point. The point is that this is a fun, crazy, and crazy fun album. It’s as intense as it is vervey as it is fucked up. You’d think that having two rambling talky-style vocalists would be redundant, but it’s actually perfect. They contrast and overlap in a lot of different ways, and a lot of the time you can’t even conceptualize their parts separately. And the band bangs it all out as hard as possible, keeping the whole thing tight, bright, danceable, and engaging.

But as fast and crazy as it is, it’s also pretty diverse. “Countdown to …” is an unrestrained trauma rant, “Don’t Hate Me Cuz I’m Beautiful” is a one-minute hardcore rush, “Land of La LA” is a ironic dance party, “Spidersss” is creepy, “Who Song Love Song” is snarky, “Confrontational” is an instrumental, “Cutie Pie” is some kind of reggae parody or something, and “Oh No (Say What?)” draws itself out through crazy rhythms and casual back-and-forth conversation. It’s got rage, jokes, sarcasm, noise, rhythm, regret, child abuse, handclaps, petty jabs, STDs, surf guitars, double-time hi-hats, yowling, and love (mostly the bad kind). It’s, like, the complete human experience. More or less.


Dressy Bessy – Kingsized


So I started listening to this band basically at complete random a while back, many years ago, and for a while they were honestly just kind of Some Band to me, but over time their songs started to sort of passively sink in. I really wonder how these things work sometimes. “Let the words be wrong, could be worse. Words’ll fade, someday they’ll become your favorite song.” Their affect is as cutesy as their name implies, but that doesn’t mean anything by itself. It’s just what they use to do what they’re doing. They “don’t need no candy coated IOUs from anybody,” and they definitely don’t want any diamonds. The truth is that they’re a great rock band, and this is another album full of great songs.

It’s full of bouncy rhythms and quirky melodies, but as it goes on you start to realize that everything about it is deeply unclear and even confusing. The songs here are unexpectedly overstuffed; they twirl around themselves, picking up strange debris in the process. You think they have clear emotional angles, but as they go on they curve subtly in weird directions, so at the end you look around and somehow you’re in a completely different place than you thought you were. “Make Mine Violet” is impossible to get a handle on – it’s half drawn-out and half hard-hitting, half unadorned and half uncomfortably noisy; it’s got an uplifting progression, but it progresses towards “I’m never ever gonna care again.” The call-and-response sections of “Dirty Birdies” interrupt the flow to recontextualize it from a harsher angle. “57 Disco” isn’t a disco song, it’s a weirdly vampy Ramones song. “Lady Liberty” straightforwardly rocks, but it also rushes through as many thoughts as possible as fast and as disorientingly as possible, and then “Get Along (Diamond Ring)” circles around one idea over and over. “Kingsized” tears through with a scratchy guitar rush, but “in the same way” it’s “dissatisfied.” And “In Particular” is a long ending that leaves you with “nothing in particular.”

In the end, though, the album succeeds on a deeper level than just doing one thing well or saying one thing clearly. It’s optimistic not because it’s happy-sounding or because it has any kind of positive message, but just because the case it makes for itself is ultimately convincing. “There’s hope for us redeemers, and there’s still this song.”


The Minders – Into the River


So . . . okay, I don’t have anything cute this time. This is just really good music. It’s a coolheaded album that’s also totally unconstrained, refusing to establish any expectations. It’s right at the intersection of honest songwriting, solid rock, and earnest pop. It’s bright and hopeful without being twee, serious and committed without being tryhard, and simple without being simplistic. It goes pretty far afield, down to the bones on “Into The River” and all the way up to 11 on “Needle Doll”; the vocals range between sneers, laments, and full-on desperate cries. It is definitely not trying to sound cool (“I’ll paint something for you to fill your eyes, something bright and simple”), “Heart of the Heartaches” has kind of a goofy ragtime vibe, even, but it’s sharp and determined about what it is in a way that makes you want to go where it’s going. Whistles and strings on “It’s Gonna Breakout!” give it a skyward feel that makes you believe it, exclamation point and all, even though it’s actually coming from the down side: “Time and time again, I go tearing after fading suns.” Actually, that contrast between up songs and down content is part of what defines the album. “I can’t see what’s in front of me. With you gone, the future doesn’t sing to me.” Which of course is not just a contrast; it’s about constructing faith out of faithlessness.

Radio, make that sound; play it loud and proud

Push through sunlit clouds, crystalline clear

I will never doubt you; I can’t live without you

I am here beside you, free and clear

But it does this without being really dramatic about it. It has a big band sound, but it’s not a “big” album. It is neither trying to erect a new idol nor trying to tear an old one down (“I patently refuse to criticize; I’ll just let go”). Actually part of the point is to oppose precisely this pattern of pretentiousness: “Keep on scheming, I will find a way. Your horse is so high you can look on the future, gotta be the first to know.” While I know that there are people out there who were waiting for this comeback (I wasn’t, honestly), it’s not going to leave much of a scar on the world. I mean, I don’t care either way, but I get that impression here. Like, things tend to be a little hyperbolic lately, in a way that often obscures the thing that is supposedly worth being hyperbolic about. I don’t know if you’ve noticed. This album forces you to appreciate it as an aesthetic object and not as a “masterpiece” or a “revival” or the “next big thing” or whatever other nonsense you can come up with. “All this time of doubt, breathe it in and let it out.” But at the same time, it’s too divergent and too forceful to merely form an ode to a simpler world. It actually is great, and that’s exactly the thing. Greatness is smaller than people think.

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