Good albums of 2016, part 5

White Lung – Paradise


I was really looking forward to this album, and I was also expecting it to be a big step forward from the already-great Deep Fantasy, which is pretty much the perfect setup for disappointment. Guess what though. What’s really amazing about this is, well, I mean, what was already amazing is just that this is a hardcore band that sounds modern and relevant in the year two thousand and whatever it is, and what was also already amazing is that they’ve continued to do better than that on every successive album, but what’s amazing about this album specifically is that it advances and expands the band’s sound and songwriting – smoother on “Hungry,” metaler on “Vegas,” mellower but still piercing on “Below,” and with a full-throated sing-along chorus on “Kiss Me When I Bleed” (which happens to be about bringing a child into a world of filth and despair) – while also not only maintaining but enhancing their basic force and intensity. It hits you everywhere at once, and it’s able to do this without being “experimental” or branching out into every available affect. It’s both propulsive and towering, both ethereal and bloody, both aspirational and wrathful, both artful and raw. The guitar parts take everything great that guitars are capable of doing and shift, sift, and swirl it all together into a single unrestrained style that speaks in its own new language. And the lyrics similarly confuse their emotional angles to alchemize strange substances and birth untaxonomized monsters. “Demented” insists that “you were born to ruin your life,” “I Beg You” “fights back like a full-blown rotten cancer,” “Dead Weight” is both hopelessly resigned and defiantly committed, “Sister” cobbles together a bizarre narrative out of degeneration and murder, the ironic skyward thrust of “Narcoleptic” comes across as borderline angelic, and “Paradise” is almost chill until it lashes back at itself and dies hard. So context aside, even, this is the kind of work that makes expectations irrelevant. Regardless of what you were expecting before, what you’re expecting now is for anything to even try to be this good.

And none of this “softens” anything; the music still radiates at maximum heat and the tone is still downright murderous. It tears through and apart its ideas in under half an hour while still feeling substantial and not rushed. But it doesn’t let you get all the way to feeling satisfied, because if you’re ever satisfied with anything, you’re doing it wrong. “You are never safe from yourself.” Which is to say not only that this album is deeply impressive but that the explanation of the source of that impressiveness itself is instantiated within the music, itself. This band has developed by taking what they were already great at and doing it harder, and better, and they’ve become something different by doing that. “I’ll give my heart out, I’ll bleed until I’m cold.” This is sort of like the mirror image of reinterpretation. Any one thing has its limits, but one way to overcome those limits is to take what you’re doing all the way through, such that you come out on the other side making the same connection in a different place. The result is that this is more than a cool punk album, more than an exiting new sound, and more than great music. It’s revelatory. (More later.)


The Pack a.d. – Positive Thinking


Still the one true blues-rock band, The Pack a.d. continue to carry their invincible fundamentals, stomping intensity, and heartrending honesty into new territory. They’ve been on a bit of a hard-rock evolutionary path lately, and this time around the result is, well, basically what it says on the cover: headier and more mysterious, plainly sincere and also joking, and still as direct as a palm to the sternum. But as they’ve hardened, they’ve also transformed the performative negativity of “the blues” into something more honest and less simple (I had to look up the word “diaphanous”). What’s interesting about this is the way in which they’ve transformed themselves without transforming themselves. They’re seemingly able to do whatever they want with just the basic ingredients they’ve always had; they’ve somehow entered uncharted emotional waters without moving. Specifically, they dive into introversion from an angle that most people aren’t aware exists. To take the most obvious example, “Sorrow” is not bluesy; it’s sorrowful. The straightforwardness of their basic musical approach actually makes them capable of both evoking and complicating these kinds of things way more effectively. Their songs are desperate but also yearning; full of self-loathing, but also containing inner strength. “One foot outside, one foot in. I can’t decide, choice is not even mine.”

The irony of the title is transparent enough, but even so, this is a pretty down album. It’s not a monolith of negativity, though; it’s shot through with weird holes that don’t so much counteract the subject matter as contort it around itself. “These days, the glass fills itself.” “Anyway” is a slow burn about being unable to seal the deal. “Yes, I Know” evokes the resignation implied by its title, but expresses it through steady “beat my heart like a drum” implacability and “battle stations go” aggression. Louder guitars and softer vocals on “Gold Eyes” sneak up from behind like a stalker; a little bit more of a rockabilly ramble on “Is It So” puts a wry smirk on unknowability; “Los Angeles” twists like hands on a throat. The closer, “Fair Enough,” gets off to an unassuming start but builds into the opposite of the resignation that its title implies – it’s an absolute storm, twisting and crashing in all directions, even as it lies to itself. “Medium” lusts after transformation through mundane stomping and screeching, implying the impossibility of getting the only thing that’s worth anything. “Maybe I’ll be reborn into some new form, where I’ll be safe and warm – because, in the end, no one wants to be alone.”

In context, though, this is more than just drama. This album realizes the paradox of success: succeeding means losing the thing that made you successful in the first place. “I’ve already won, why would I give it another shot.” And it also attacks it, forcing itself forward without reassessing or reverting, synthesizing confidence and vulnerability into something that becomes more human through its development. “I want you to be the hero in me tonight.”


Eleanor Friedberger – New View


Friedberger has a couple of guns that she pretty much sticks to – her short-story lyrics, casual-yet-mysterious delivery, and passionately cool rhythms are all here intact. As the title implies, this is a perspective shift that is not a fundamental reassessment, and it brings new things into focus. The sound is more cohesive and less flighty, and the higher definition makes the hidden nooks clearer and deeper. The drama and/or trauma of her songs is more implied than shouted; they dredge up depths and unveil truths through finesse rather than force. The subject matter is disarmingly simplistic: making scrambled eggs, taking two hours just to say hi, kissing in a mausoleum (or not). The musical style reaches way back to the old kind of pop-rock, before all that stuff that happened, but it also stands its ground in the present, as a real object in the current world. “Worlds we’re still discovering will give us better songs to sing.”

The vocals on “Never is a Long Time” subsume themselves into the guitars, turning their usual ethereality into outright ghostliness that makes a subtle but terrifying threat. “Cathy With The Curly Hair” pulls a completely banal encounter into a ghastly phantom dimension. “Sweetest Girl” evokes a breakdown on its avalanching chorus without itself falling, holding back its own tears. “He Didn’t Mention His Mother” doesn’t mention him or his mother – it works though negative space and implication. “Because I Asked You” spins around on a dime to recontextualize its lyrics. “Your Word” has the steady forcefulness you might expect, but it doesn’t actually reach a solid statement – “what you see is the air, and your breath is the bond”; substance only comes from insubstantiality. “Does Turquoise Work?” is weird and off-color – it works in the same way that turquoise works.

Part of the target of all this, the thing that it shifts perspective on, is the nature of passion itself, and the way that we communicate it through things like such as pop music. It isn’t just that it insinuates rather than insists and sutures rather than slams, it’s that it deliberately does not try to overwhelm or awe; it feels like it’s holding back even as it penetrates. “All Known Things” is based on ridiculous overstatement, but it’s also chill to the point of sleepiness. The album is midtempo and melancholy the whole way through, but by the end it has somehow resolved itself into triumph. It’s not a particularly wide-ranging journey, but it’s not a sprint either. It’s the beginning of a long walk. “We weren’t paying attention, and ended where we hadn’t planned. Then we found that just by chance, we were walking hand in hand.” (More later.)


Parquet Courts – Human Performance


Certainly among the more self-aware of the modern boy-punk bands, Parquet Courts operate with an understanding of what being a punk band in the current context doesn’t mean, that screaming about “no future” makes no sense right now (even if it’s true), but also that there is something real to be preserved and advanced, that the irreconcilability of the conflict between reclaiming and fetishizing the past does not license complacency, and that the basic fact that the future is made of whatever you choose to do right now remains true. So they’ve kind of been going back and forth over this general terrain: “The More It Works” is straightforward and mission-statement-y, while Monastic Living takes a “vow of silence” on the whole concept, insisting that “we’re just a band,” and then following that up with half an hour of noise.

But that ambivalence is part of the point: they’re moving forward without eliding the limitations on what it is that they’re able to do. Their songs have a jauntiness that pulls them up out of the punk sludge; they’re expert at invoking the joking-but-serious tone at full effectiveness, “screaming softly in a loud mic.” And none of this implies an avoidance of the blood and bones of current events; “Careers in Combat,” off of their first album, is one of the sharper musical takes on the current situation, more insightful than its cleverness implies; this time around, “Two Dead Cops” confronts the death-in-the-streets immediacy that has animated what is presently our most vital avenue of resistance. “Protect you is what they say, but point and shoot is what they do. Nobody cries in the ghetto for two dead cops.” So overall this album seems to have settled on a kind of middle ground, opening with a mission statement as practical as it is modest: “It comes through the window, it comes through the floor, it comes through the roof, and it comes through the door. Dust is everywhere – sweep!”

The problem is that this isn’t good enough. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir uses housework as an example of the way sexism curtails women’s transcendence. Because cleaning, and maintenance work in general, aims only at maintaining things in the state they are already in, because it doesn’t go anywhere, it cannot qualify as a project. It forces one onto the floor and bars the sky. Like living in prison, each new day is merely a new day – no new possibilities are ever indicated. So if this is all we have – if we continue making and listening to punk albums solely for the purpose of making and listening to punk albums – then what we actually have is nothing. We’re already dead.

“One Man No City” is the ideological centerpiece of the album, but it’s not as straightforward an expression of modern alienation as it at first appears. The vocals are measured and direct, while wrapped around confusing contradictions (“Where I’m from, no one lived there. Where I’m from now, still no one lives there”). As a song, it takes what should be a simple statement and muddles it into bizarreness. The bongos and shakers that (somehow) hold it together make a joke out of the concept of rhythm, while the guitars meander all over the place before barely stumbling into an ending. It pokes fun at its own philosophical bent: “Cogito ergo, some people say, but think again, because I have no faith.” Yet this is not entirely a joke. Descartes only proved that some sort of thinking was taking place; it still requires a leap to go from there to “I” – to the assertion that a “self” actually exists. Furthermore, philosophy nerds will recall that the second thing he supposedly proved was that the Christian god exists and is making sure that everything is actually fine. This isn’t quite as hilarious a leap as it sounds (it’s still pretty funny, though). If you merely exist, you’re not really anything. There’s no way to distinguish that situation from nothingness. What’s required is something for existence to act against – a context – and if everything is doubtable, then the only way to establish a context is through faith. There’s no such thing as not believing in anything, just like you can’t live in “no city.” “You can’t crop yourself out of a picture – you’re out of focus, but still framed inside.” Indeed, even believing in nothing is not the same as not believing. “It never leaves me, it just visits less often.”

So if alienation is real, then it’s not just a sad thing. It destroys everything. If there’s “no you, just me,” then there’s also no identity, and no relief; no thoughts, no feelings, and no understanding. “My keys don’t work; this knob don’t turn.” But the song insists that “I still remain: one man, solitary,” and the reason this is possible and also true is because of the by-default nature of faith. It’s not defiance, it’s almost the opposite: it’s resignation to the fact that you can try to doubt and reject everything, but you can never really get there. But this is only half comforting, because it also means there’s no escape. Faith entails responsibility to the thing that you believe in, so even if what you have faith in is emptiness, you “still remain.” Even simple defensiveness is not “detachment,” but a type of engagement: the careful steps that avoid traps; the slow, dull work of patching wounds. You might not be able to mean anything, but you still can – must – exist as as a hollow, unsignifying object – as a human performance.

What the album finally settles on, then, is something that moves where maintenance stalls: rehearsal. “I’ve never felt committed to much, but that don’t mean that I can’t learn.” Something like being in a band, for example, is generally considered one of the most authentically human things a person can do, but what it entails in practice is turning yourself into a machine – something that “performs.” And this applies just the same to private, theoretically non-aesthetic personal relationships, up to and including love (physical or otherwise). “I told you I loved you – did I even deserve it?” And even at that, at the thing which is supposedly a direct expression of your real self and not something mediated by efficacy, you still need practice. Because this is also sort of a sideways breakup album. It’s about absence and loneliness in a more general sense, about the things you lose, but it’s also about the things that don’t go away, and the parts of yourself that you can’t get rid of. “Nothing lasts, but nearly everything lingers.” So while a rehearsal is also empty, no one sees it and it doesn’t matter how well you do, the difference is that it points towards something: a better – more human – performance. “It’s gonna happen every time, so rehearse with me in mind.”


The Joy Formidable – Hitch


So I read this like interview or something somewhere, I honestly don’t remember what it was at all, but whoever the person was, they were talking about the role of production in independent music. Briefly, production equipment is cheap enough now that no-name artists don’t have to be scratchy punk weirdos anymore; while the costs aren’t trivial, it’s possible for anyone to make music that sounds however they want it to. And they pointed out a contrast I’d never really thought about before: pop music is entirely dependent on production quality, and it’s of poor quality. That is, as everyone knows, corporate pop music is overproduced, but it also sounds bad; it’s badly produced.

This was a revelation for me, in the sense that it was something I had always known implicitly but never actually faced and conceptualized, and doing so led to unanticipated conclusions. It’s not just that society is organized upside-down, such that we spend the most resources on the worst things. It’s that our current situation is such that expending resources on things makes them worse, which means that that the entire project of human civilization is not just fundamentally flawed but fatally wrong as a whole. That’s an overstatement; not everything is like that, but still. It’s a pretty fucking atrocious dynamic to exist at all, let alone with the prominence that it has.

So in terms of music, while you do have your James Chance-type interventions that are supposed to act as aesthetic violence, these are pretty rare. Even something like the Sex Pistols doesn’t work that way. I actually avoided listening to the Sex Pistols album for a while because I assumed it was going to intentionally sound like trash, but when I finally got around to it I was surprised to find that it was not merely provocative, but plainly good. Aesthetic preferences aside, it’s just better on a basic quality level than the nonsense that they’re trying to make popular these days.

See, the normal framing is that popular stuff is high-quality but shallow, because it has a ton of resources devoted to it, whereas niche stuff is low-quality but sincere, because it’s a labor of love. But that’s not actually right. The reason cult stuff gains a following is not because people are weirdos (they are, but that’s unrelated), it’s because it’s better by standards that are a particular subset of mainstream standards. There are really very few people who are deliberately trying to be provocative via obnoxiousness. People are almost universally trying to do things good. And commercial detritus is actual detritus because it actually sounds bad. There are exceptions; one time I walked into a store and “Beat It” was playing and I was momentarily paralyzed with shock at how much better it sounded on a basic musical level than anything that’s similarly famous these days. But the point is that, in general, the obscene level of resources that our society expends on certain areas of production, cultural and otherwise, is not directed towards quality, and said expenditures do not produce a return anywhere close to their investment. This is actually one of our great lies: capitalism is supposedly efficient and productive but heartless, and that’s supposed to be worth it for the material gains it produces. We can object to this arrangement on the level of values, but the fact is that even if we accede to these terms, we’re still getting screwed over, because we aren’t receiving anything like what we were promised. We aren’t getting a rich, well-designed society that happens to cause a few negative externalities, we are harvesting and consuming souls for the sake of producing trash. We’re wasting the planet.

This is also why the whole “obscure bands” thing is the worst angle ever. Nobody fucking cares how popular something is or isn’t. There’s nothing even remotely eccentric about being into music. We want the same thing everybody wants: we want good experiences. The only difference is that we’re paying attention, and we’re not willing to pretend like terrible things aren’t terrible. We won’t settle for cotton candy when we could be having pie. I mean, that’s the actual problem here, right? In general? If things were actually good in general, we wouldn’t have any real grounds to complain, we’d just be aesthetic nitpickers. But things aren’t okay, and the reason we have to care is not idiosyncratic, and it’s not because we’re freaks (we are, but that’s unrelated). It’s because a genuinely better world is possible.

. . . What was I talking about? Oh, right. Hitch by The Joy Formidable is a rock music album. It’s good. The band got their start with “Cradle,” which is one of those songs that just comes out of nowhere and knocks you on your ass, but they’re a little more controlled and measured by now. While entirely accessible, this album doesn’t have any obvious singles or sing-alongs. It’s big and noisy but also artsy; opaque but also open and sincere. They walk a fine line between being a crazy rock band (the bassist headbutted the cymbals at one show) and being a bunch of pretentious art dorks (the specific term the singer used one time was “twats”); their artsiness never gets annoying and their songs never get dumb. Their lyrics are engaging, but don’t really force any shocking revelations (“The Last Thing On My Mind” is about reversing the male gaze (see below), but I defy anyone to actually deduce that from the words). Also, this whole thing is pretty friggin long; looking at the list of song lengths is viscerally shocking. While this kind of thing is actually counter to my inclinations (believe it or not), it’s long with a purpose: “Radio of Lips” starts out sounding kind of, well, radio-like, and the length of the song builds it into more through endurance. Similarly, it’s the progression on “Liana” rather than any individual part that makes the song. And they’re almost better at slow ballads than they are at rockers; “Underneath The Petal” stands out here for its unadorned beauty. For all that, though, this is a fairly melancholy album overall – not depressing, clearly alive, but slightly resigned. It’s casually dramatic, big and bold against a background of subtle sadness. It’s not a storm; it’s “thunder on a clear day.”

And so then the other thing about this is that I don’t actually want to make any kind of point here. I just want you to listen to this album. That’s the only thing that matters. When you listen to it, you feel the thing that it is, and that’s it. Like, I just wrote a bunch of psychotic ideological nonsense about that Parquet Courts album, but that isn’t particularity related to why I like it. I like it because it sounds good. Music is for listening to music to. I certainly don’t feel that analysis sullies things, I just feel like a lot of the time there’s no point. “You’re blowing fire for too long and getting nothing.”

It is necessarily the case with criticism that you’re living in the shadow of the work itself, but that’s not a problem on its own. You have to live somewhere. But you kind of start feeling like an idiot hanging out in the shadows when the sun is up there shining with the combined inner fires of innumerable souls. Weird things are easy to explain. You just explain why they’re weird. When something is just plain great, there’s nothing to say about it other than “it’s great.” “This isn’t a path that takes you somewhere.” Most of this is probably just my own limitations. I should be as good at this as these people are at what they’re doing. But I’m not, and I have to do things this way.

So that’s going to be my point. Whatever angle you want to take on whatever it is you want to take angles on, it has to point towards the thing that actually matters. It’s not that we’re someday going to “get past” working things out. The world will always be complicated in exactly that way. It’s that the point of harnessing complications is to get somewhere better. If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution. This album and this band convey that sense of things – as though it weren’t a performance, but rather the reverse; as though the rest of the nonsense we have to put up with were the performance that we fake our way through in order to make it here, to the part that’s real. They play as though we’re not fucked, and it’s enough to make you think it might be true.

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