Tag Archives: indie rock

The Voidz – Virtue

20 Dec

Over the years, there have been numerous side projects of The Strokes’ members. Lead singer Julian Casablancas had a short-lived solo act, while lead guitarist Albert Hammond Jr has had a string of well-received albums (including one that we loved this year). However, the most intriguing project has consistently been the New York group known as The Voidz.

Consisting of six musicians (and led by Casablancas), The Voidz are perhaps an alternate-reality version of The Strokes: one where the immense mainstream success of the latter’s debut Is This It did not stop them from fully exploring their musical capabilities. Quirky, eclectic, and mind-numbingly creative, Virtue is perhaps Casablancas’ most inspired music since the matchless Is This It.

What stands out the most on Virtue is the vast number of musical styles that it manages to touch. The band has mentioned in interviews that their creative push comes from the members’ wide-ranging tastes – and it’s easy to see that here.

QYURRUS” can perhaps be described as Arabic Autotune, with Casablancas’ literally unintelligible vocals often sounding like a foreign language (and / or a cult leader). Strangely, though, the song’s freakishly morphed melody gets stuck in your head; sort of like musical Stockholm Syndrome. On the immediate next song, The Voidz swerve with “Pyramid of Bones”, featuring hard rock verses that devolve frequently into a full-on death metal chorus.

Pink Ocean” is something else altogether: a slinky, vaguely pessimistic number that relies on Casablancas’ famous falsetto (see: “Instant Crush”). Toward the end of the album, “We’re Where We Are” frazzles the soul with its barked-out political commentary (“New holocaust happening / What, are you blind? / You’re in Germany now, 1939”) and hell-raising anger.

Not to say that all of Virtue is crazy stuff, either: Casablancas thankfully dips into Strokes-y brilliance once in a while. Album opener “Leave It in My Dreams” is an instantly nostalgic tune with clean guitars, sharp drums and some of Casablancas’ most emotive vocals. “ALieNNatioN” is more sinuous and mysterious, but has many of the same broadly pleasant elements. There may be a lot of strange sounds on “All Wordz Are Made Up” (cowbell, anyone?), but the classic dance-pop beats push the marker from weird to fun. “Wink” and its cousin “Lazy Boy” could make frequent rotations on your favorite pop station, with lush rhythm guitars, laconic vocals and beautiful melodies.

There are fifteen songs on Virtue, and frankly, each of them deserve their own page-length homage. This is an album that rewards you with something new on every single listen. Highly recommended, no matter what your tastes are.

Best songs: “Leave It in My Dreams”, “QYURRYUS”, “All Wordz Are Made Up”

P.S. The album has generated many great music videos, but perhaps the best is the one for “All Wordz Are Made Up”. If it’s this interesting while sober, we can only imagine…

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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”

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

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