Tag Archives: indie rock

Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

13 Dec

In many ways, the Arctic Monkeys’ sixth studio album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is the antithesis of their break-out debut (Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not).

For starters, Tranquility is much slower-paced, relying heavily on dreamy piano bits and understated bass-lines, while the debut practically rewrote the book on fast-paced guitar riffs. Lyrically, Tranquility has lead singer Alex Turner making circuitous, often self-important statements, differing vastly from the sharp observations on “From the Ritz to the Rubble” or on “A Certain Romance” – and ironically becoming the same person he lambasted on “Fake Tales of San Francisco”.

And that isn’t the biggest irony. The Monkeys’ debut propelled to instant fame partly because it was precisely at the right point in music history to become one of the Internet’s first “viral” hits – but Alex Turner, in an unfortunate turn toward the geriatric, devotes many lines on Tranquility to the supposed evils of a connected world.

It isn’t all bad news, though. “Four Out of Five”, with its bass-laden brilliance, details Turner’s fascinating album concept. Apparently, the very real Tranquility Base now houses a hotel and casino on the moon, complete with a house band (Arctic Monkeys as the Martini Police) and a taqueria on the roof. There’s also a hint of a futuristic dystopia (“Since the exodus, [the moon’s] all getting gentrified”), which the music video builds upon with intrigue.

Batphone” is another stand-out track, with a subtly sexy bass and an old-school thriller vibe that perhaps makes the Monkeys great contenders to soundtrack the next Bond movie. The title song also shines through O’Malley’s bass-line, and a dollop of magical realism (“Jesus in the day spa / filling out the information form”). By the time you get to the chorus, you almost feel like you are, indeed, at the Monkeys’ hotel and casino complex.

However, the album betrays a steep decline in Turner’s lyrics. “Technological advances / Really bloody get me in the mood”, he complains on the title song, and seconds later beseeches his lady love, “Pull me in close on a crisp eve, baby / Kiss me underneath the moon’s side boob”. Yuck, on both counts. On “She Looks Like Fun”, he descends into simply yelling out non-sequiturs (“Good morning” / “Cheeseburger” / “Snowboarding”) – apparently, they are all references to his now-ex-girlfriend Taylor Bagley’s Instagram feed, but that knowledge cannot excuse these lyrics (and somehow makes them worse). On “Batphone”, he talks about using “the search engine” and the time he “got sucked into a hand-held device”. Perhaps the technological ignorance is meant to be quaint?

Apart from the lyrics, the album’s other big travesty is the criminal under-use of Matt Helders’ drums. Other than Turner’s (erstwhile) quick wit, Helders’ drumming was perhaps the key reason to be a Monkeys fan. On Tranquility, he is relegated to simple beats that a drum machine could have probably provided, while Turner takes front stage with an often-rambling persona. On the music front, the silver lining is that Nick O’Malley really outdid himself on the bass, practically carrying otherwise-unmemorable songs.

With Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, the once-cool Arctic Monkeys have taken a worryingly avuncular turn. Hopefully, Alex and co. will be able to take the best parts of this album for a livelier seventh output. This one, though, is a dud.

Best songs: “Four Out of Five”, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”, “Batphone”

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Top Five Lo-Fi Indie Albums of 2018 With Female Singers That We’re Listening To Right Now

26 Aug

This title may seem overly specific, but it’s a subgenre that I cannot get enough of and one that 2018 has been anomalously fruitful for. These albums are lo-fi not only in music but in topic, but it’s that lowering of stakes that’s what allows them to shine. I love this space for smaller stories

Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel

Courtney Barnett continues the long tradition of lo-fi indie rock set down by people like Pavement in the 90s. She’s more clever and more understated than her predecessors though. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit had a strong voice of its own and was a fantastic debut. Tell Me How You Really Feel is not quite up to the same standard. The understatement goes a little too far here and the album just feels muted.

She’s still an excellent musician and there are some real moments of cleverness, such as the put down to an anonymous troll in “Nameless, Faceless” or the happy roll of “Sunday Roast”. It’s a very solid album. It’s just also one that’s a little too quiet about what it has to say.

Clairo – diary 001

Bands get younger every year. It takes someone like Clairo to really bring that home to you though and to bring home just how talented these young stars are. Her hit song “Pretty Girl” is well worth the attention, but there’s a lot in here worth your attention.

She has a wonderful voice that blends mellowness and disaffection to the point that they’re indistinguishable. It’s manages to be deeply compelling though, standoffish or no, and gives you the space you need to submerge yourself in it.

Her music is young and whip-smart and earnest all at once. There’s a lot of craft underlying the album’s pose and every song was clearly assembled with care. For all of the softness and all of the understatement, there’s still quite a bit of muted fun in the effects around “B.O.M.D.” and “4EVER” is highly danceable pop.

Even with the short runtime of 14 minutes, there is a bit here that could have been removed safely, but there’s also as much actually worth listening to as most full releases.

Speedy Ortiz – Twerp Verse

Speedy Ortiz have always been the cleverest kids around. Sadie Dupuis is sharp and incisive enough to make a scalpel look like a foam bat and combines that with an unbelievable skill with poetry. With Twerp Verse, Speedy Ortiz has moved further into their own voice than even before. More opaque, more stripped-down and more rewarding than before, this album continues the evolution of this band into something that is more confidently their own.

Firstly, “Villain” is an exceptional song. The plainness of the lyrics highlights just how disturbing they are and the off-kilter timings of the song are disorienting and beautiful. “Lucky 88” is catchy and surprisingly Silversun Pickups-like for a band that once toured with Stephen Malkmus. “You Hate The Title” is really playful music as well.

As always, Speedy Ortiz are the smartest indie rockers around. They’re just much too good for you not to listen to.

Snail Mail – Lush

This is the most lo-fi of the albums here. It has deeply textured, hazy sounds that are very reminiscent of the recent fantastic Vagabon album. Her voice is wonderfully teenage though and so deeply sincere. This is the kind of debut that forces people to pay attention. For all that it is clearly part of a long tradition of ‘90s indie rock, it’s stunningly modern and derives from a wide variety of influences. It’s the rare album to live up to the promises of the title.

You can really see this in pieces like “Speaking Terms”, where the drawn out segments epitomize the lo-fi that I adore. The composition of the song perfectly introduces and then frames her voice. “Pristine” moves faster and the lyrics are personal and honest and then challenging of itself and so of you.

Strong, honest, layered and skillful, this is a startling debut and a strong statement of arrival.

Mitski – Be The Cowboy

We’ve saved the best for last with this list. Mitski’s previous album Puberty 2 was one of the best albums of 2016 and Be The Cowboy is, if anything, better. It’s exceedingly clever and complex and uses that to keep you off-balance the entire way through.

While it lacks anything on the level of the breakout single “Your Best American Girl” and steps into a more remote realm, the quality of the songs here are stunningly consistent. Whether it’s the threads of “Old Friend” or “Me And My Husband” that braid through each other to make a deeply layered narrative or the cleverness of the rise and then abrupt walk back of “Two Slow Dancers” or the knife-edge and thump of “Washing Machine Heart”, every one of these songs is just really good music.

Mitski just goes from strength to strength. She’s sharp, incisive and very human and Be The Cowboy is everything you could want from a lo-fi indie album in 2018.

@murthynikhil

Soccer Mommy – Clean

9 Apr

A sub-genre that I really cannot get enough of is the whip-smart, deeply cynical, very feminine indie rock of bands like Speedy Ortiz and Mitski and Girlpool. The debut album from Soccer Mommy is all of that, for sure, but it’s also very much her own.

“Your Dog” is an early contender for song of the year for me and a good place to start my praise of this album. The song is dark and personal and the video is honestly disturbing, but what I like the most from this is how stripped down it feels. Indie rock is at its best when there’s nothing extraneous and this song drills right down to what it means to say. The line “Forehead kisses break my knees and / Leave me crawling back to you” is both evocative and delivered beautifully.

Similarly, I love the slow, understated burn of “Scorpio Rising”. It is glorious storytelling in Autumnal colors. The quiet yearning of “Wildflowers” is simply poetic and the fuzziness as the song fades in and out of comprehensibility says things that the words could not have.

For all of the highlights, and there are quite a few more than those above, there is still a bit too much that’s forgettable than would be ideal. Nevertheless, it’s a clever, personal indie rock album and “Your Dog” is a stellar piece of work. Clean is well worth the listen.

@murthynikhil

Spoon – Hot Thoughts

12 Dec

Hot thoughts

No band embodies the idea of independent rock better than Spoon. Since 1996, the Austin band has churned out a great album every two to three years (see: Gimme Fiction, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga).

Every other band with similar discography and enduring success (U2, RHCP) inevitably seems to fall prey to arena rock and millions-strong fan followings. Not Spoon though. They don’t wear leather pants. They don’t talk about their fame in songs. They never moved en masse to LA or NYC; one of them still lives in Austin, where he’s been a key element of the city’s music scene for decades. After all these years, Spoon’s self-worth seems to stem not from the limelight, but from an innate source of cool. And that’s what makes them truly indie rock.

Lead man Britt Daniel doesn’t like the “indie rock” label, though, and it kind of makes sense. In in our present understanding of the term, indie rock often refers to great-sounding upstarts that shot to fame through a combination of luck, marketing and the Internet – but whether their fame endures beyond the debut is a different matter. Spoon grew up in a different world, painstakingly building their sound (and fan base) without sacrificing their passion.

Hot Thoughts, their ninth full-length album, is the latest fruit of this passion. It’s full of the typical Spoon sound – punchy drums, wailing guitars, feverish bass lines and Daniel’s megaphone-via-voicemail singing style – peppered with a certain Spoon-y quirkiness that makes it a unique new album in their discography.

It’s the quirky details that make the songs stick: the first listen may entertain, but the fourth will truly intoxicate. On “Do I Have to Talk You into It”, the swaggering drums over a nervy piano are enough to make a great song, but Daniel’s idiosyncratic renditions of the song title is what stays with you. He shimmies up and down the scale one time; shout-asks in another; fades into the overpowering drums in a third; a magnetic presence on a magnetic track.

One of the verses on “First Caress” talks about a girl who likes to tell Daniel that coconut milk and coconut water are the same thing; it’s such a weird detail, but you somehow end up replaying the song just to hear him say that line. “Pink Up” has a dreamy, atmospheric sound, full of light xylophone touches and folksy maracas, as Daniel exhorts the listener to live life in the moment by taking the train to Marrakesh.

Of course, Spoon isn’t all about the quirk – some of their songs are just pure rock classics. The eponymous song is a good old-fashioned paean to a girl who gives Daniel some sexy ideas, set over fretty licks and Jim Eno’s confident drums. The frenetic energy of the drums and bass on “Shotgun” could and probably will incite a riot at some point, which is fitting because it’s about getting into fisticuffs. “Can I Sit Next to You” thumps along to a funk guitar and dance beats, a strutting theme song to Daniel’s unabashed pick-up line (“Can I sit next to you? Can you sit next to me?”).

Hot Thoughts is a very enjoyable album through and through by the guys who basically invented the genre. You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t give it a listen.

Best songs: “Do I Have to Talk You Into It”, “Can I Sit Next to You”, “Shotgun”

Girlpool – Powerplant

23 Jun

Excellent lo-fi indie rock in the style of Speedy Ortiz. It’s clever, cutting, precious lines sung sweetly in front of indie guitars and drums and it does it very well.

Powerplant is wonderfully human. The excellent “Soup” is startlingly vivid and “It Gets More Blue” is cute and sad and funny all at once. These are quiet songs about low-stakes issues and are beautiful at that. You should really try them out.

@murthynikhil

Vagabon – Infinite Worlds

8 Apr

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Infinite Worlds is the beauty of minimalism. Almost every sound and word has purpose. It makes a wonderfully succinct argument for the value of brevity.

“Cleaning House”, for instance, uses a simple background to allow Laetitia Tamko’s voice to really shine. She draws out notes perfectly and the quiet periods of the song do a lot to emphasize this skill. Similarly, her vocalizing in “Cold Apartment” just sucks you in. Unfortunately, I feel that this focus on sound was taken too far on “Mal a Laise”. It’s just a little too long and a little too repetitive, but that’s really the only fault I could find with the album.

Albums like this are the reason to listen to indie rock. I highly recommend you try it.

@murthynikhil

The Strokes: Future Present Past

10 Jun

The Strokes

Success came too early for the Strokes. The band’s first studio album, Is This It, is widely considered to be one of the most quintessential indie rock records of all time. Musical kingmakers like NME heralded the leather-clad quintet as the saviors of the entire rock genre. In an era marred by Linkin Park and Nickelback, the Strokes provided the soundtrack for the drunken heydey of an entire generation of now-nostalgic twentysomethings. What more could they achieve?

The threat of great expectations colored their next few albums. Sophomore record Room on Fire certainly had a handful of gems in the Strokes’ signature style; First Impressions of Earth had fewer. Disagreements often cropped up between the members, particularly against lead singer Julian Casablancas. In 2009, Casablancas noted to British daily The Sun that “a band is a great way to break up a friendship”. Demise seemed certain.

However, the band still owed two records to RCA, the label that won them in a bidding war during their prodigal days. The Strokes halfheartedly released Angles in 2011 and Comedown Machine in 2013, both to lukewarm reviews (at best). Their early days – immortalized in the carefree exuberance of Is This It – seemed to be gone forever.

Future Present Past

It is into this complex atmosphere that the band released the Future Present Past EP. Over a media-heavy two days in late May – uncharacteristic for the infamously aloof band – the Strokes released the four songs that make up the band’s first EP since January 2001. Finally unburdened from RCA’s stifling contract, the Strokes have breathed fresh air into their stagnant career.

“Drag Queen” is a dense piece driven by Nikolai Fraiture’s sludge-like bass line, almost reminiscent of mid-career Killers. The lyrics, oblique as with most Strokes songs, seem to hint at an anti-capitalist stance (“I don’t understand your fucked-up system, messing up the city/Try to sell the water, try to sell the air”). Could it be a message to RCA and the music industry?

“OBLIVIUS” hits closer to the band itself. “Untame me, it’s not my midnight yet” sings Casablancas on the opening line, speaking to the band’s fresh start after the five-record albatross. Musically, the song would fit right in on Room on Fire: not as crisp as their first songs, but certainly as driven by a clean click track. The song also features two enmeshed guitar pieces – one soaring, one pulsating – bedded under Casablancas’ condenser croon: all vintage Strokes. The EP also includes drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s remix of “OBLIVIUS”, wherein an electronic version of the bass line and guitar riffs are brought to the fore, atop a flattened version of Casablancas’ vocals.

However, “Threat of Joy” is the song that completely revives the Strokes. Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr trade simple, crunchy guitar riffs over Moretti’s clean drums – straight out of Is This It. Casablancas opens the song with a Lou Reed-esque drawl but moves into an early 2001-version of himself, his voice filled with more joy than we’ve heard in years. “Place your bets this time/Just has to let it ride,” he ventures, perhaps talking of their newfound freedom. If you loved Is This It, you will love this song: it’s right up there with “Someday” or “Hard to Explain”.

In a way, Future Present Past is perfectly named. The three songs present a condensed version of the Strokes’ repertoire: from the unadulterated, old-school perfection of “Threat of Joy” to the soaring complexity of “OBLIVIUS” and finally to the more arcane “Drag Queen”. Unencumbered by record companies and with absolutely nothing to prove, the Strokes have all the choice in the world. We’re excited no matter what they do from here.

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