The title of Challenger‘s The World Is Too Much For Me is an apt interpretation of both its lyrics and music, but in opposite ways. The lyrics throughout the album are about the byproducts of modern life: fear, desperation and confusion over an amorphous other. The size of the world and its problems are conspiring to overwhelm the lyricist, but the lyrics fight back with a commitment to hope. The music, on the other hand, is more manic than morose, invoking the sounds of Paul Simon’s Graceland, Peter Gabriel’s catalog and ’80s synth pop. Songs like “Takers” sound like the output of people who can’t get enough of everything, who have music just spilling out the ears.
Challenger knows its way around a pop hook, creating incredibly memorable tunes like “Are You Scared Too?”, “Don’t Die,” “Life in the Paint” and single “I Am Switches.” But each of these tunes drag some melancholy into the songwriting, to give the highs an extra edge. Good always looks better when it’s beating evil. And so it goes with Challenger, who are at their best when playing with the juxtapositions of light and dark. But it’s all done in a framework of electro-pop that will put a huge smile on your face. The World Is Too Much For Me is easily one of the best releases of the year, recommended for anyone who likes thoughtful, happy music.
Oh Look Out‘s Orchestrated Fuzz is also titled well: the latest from the geek-friendly power-pop band relies heavily on arrangements and album structure. Last year’s Alright Alright Alright Alright Alright was dominated by riffs and melodies, causing each song to stick out as its own piece of the puzzle. Orchestrated Fuzz is intended to hang together as one giant experience, like the soundtrack to a video game binge session.
While the tunes pop out less at me in this one, the overall sound is still strong: buzzy guitars and retro-sounding synths are undergirded by big drums and capped off by JP Pfertner’s high-pitched (but not annoyingly so) voice. The songs all run into each other, with opener “Velcro Wolf” snapping off as “Or Be Destroyed” kicks in. Things continue in this vein throughout, to good (aforementioned) effect. Lead single “Monster Fiction” is a standout, as the melody is a killer hook; “Monotone Hurray” sticks out because its awesome title leads me to remember the song. It’s worth noting that the whole thing has a lovably bedroom/garage feel to it; in a world where everything is rushing to sound professional, it’s nice to hear something that sounds lovably like a human made it. The handwritten online zine (!) also adds to that feel. Fans of Weezer, Math the Band, and Matt and Kim will all find much to love in Orchestrated Fuzz.
Also reppin those ’80s hard is Ponychase, which takes the arch synth-pop of Tears for Fears and other hyper-emotive bands of the era and uses it for modern ends. The self-titled EP combines towering synths with twinkling guitar, sparse percussion and Jordan Caress’s commanding but not overbearing voice to create a timeless, otherworldly sound. The modern lyrical cadence and vocal melody structure are what sink their teeth into me, as the joyful synth blast that opens “Believer” is elevated by Caress’s strong vocal performance.
While “Believer” is the most upbeat (and most striking) of the tunes, the rest of the songs on the six-song EP aren’t slouching. Opener “Cup of Hearts” employs many of the same sounds to a more pensive effect, while “Two Times” sounds almost beachy. “Brainwasher” closes out the EP in grand fashion, delivering the best melody of the bunch amid heavily gated snare and Caress’s voice at its torchiest. “Brainwasher, come set me free,” she pleads, and it’s a request that the EP can answer, should you ask of it: just let the sound wash over you. Ponychase’s unique sound is markedly different than other synth-indie-pop, and that’s a great thing.
There are plenty of male/female duos that have gotten by being cute and/or mysterious. The guy and girl in Destroy Nate Allen are not aiming for either: they’re mostly aiming for awesome. As an earnest, self-aware, fun, thrashy, acoustic folk/ska/punk band, they easily achieve it in With Our Powers Combined. If you’re into scream-it-out positiveness, you’re going to eat this up whole.
The duo has more in common with the technicolor hyperactivity that is Math the Band than the grooving pop of Matt and Kim, but fans of the DIY passion and enthusiasm of either band will find themselves loving the all-out attack of “We Talk Occasionally on the Internet” and “Boobie Bar.” The set-up for both songs is pretty simple: fast tempos, emphatic guy/girl vocals with a focus on creation instead of perfection, manic drums and guitars, and an overall feeling of undiluted excitement. This is especially interesting, considering that both tunes are about ostensibly sad things: “We Talk” celebrates a past friendship while lamenting the current distance, and “Boobie Bar” earnestly pleads for people to not go down to the strip club because “if you want a real relationship you won’t get far.”
That’s another thing that separates Destroy Nate Allen from other hyperactive duos: they’re absolutely earnest about everything and honest about their lives. Life is tough, but it can be defused by celebrating through music: “Distracted Nate-O-Bot” is about setting boundaries so that they won’t procrastinate; “Emergency” extols the virtues of spousal communication in handling difficult situations; “Hospital” sings the praises of a titular institution that removed a burst appendix from the female half of the band (as well as Catholic Charities, who paid for the procedure!). This sort of honesty is more often found in somber acoustic singer/songwriter fare, not in organ-driven punk throw-downs. And that’s what makes With Our Powers Combined so awesome: honest and earnest songwriting need not be the province of music that you can’t sing along with and dance to, and Destroy Nate Allen is making sure of that.
Not that they don’t have an acoustic song or two: “I Need to Know” even features a banjo. But it’s their insanely energetic, electric tunes that I remember most, because I love hearing them be real, straightforward, positive and still rocking. On that positive note: There are two really beautiful love songs here (“Chick Flick,” “Almost Out of Texas”). I vastly prefer them to most maudlin sap, because, well, … I’m repeating myself. Suffice it to say that the breathless enthusiasm of this review mirrors that of Destroy Nate Allen’s, and that you should go listen to their album immediately. It’s so, so good.
The best stuff I hear always takes the longest to review. When something is good, I can quickly explain why it’s good, compare to similar bands, edit for commas, then send some positive vibes out into the world. When something is great, it’s harder than that. There aren’t as many things to compare it to, for one thing; it’s also harder to explain why they songs are great because the songs often excel because they aren’t doing what other tunes do, lyrically and/or musically.
The Lovely Few has put out two great releases in a row: their full-length The Perseids and a follow-up EP The Orionids. (The namesakes are both meteor showers.) I’ve listened to them largely back-to-back, but they do have individual goals: Orionoids was intended to be the more user-friendly version of the Lovely Few sound that is fleshed out in Perseids. The former was necessary because the latter is a full and complete artistic vision that has few compromises or easy comparisons.
The only things I could think of as touchstones were sadly underappreciated Ithica and a way more artistic Postal Service. What The Lovely Few does could lazily be called electronic indie-pop, but that term also encompasses hyperactive stuff like Matt & Kim and Math the Band that have literally nothing in common with The Lovely Few. But the ideas that fall under the indie-pop umbrella are there: soft digital loops, moving vocal melodies, layers of electronic and organic instruments, strong control of space. The things that differentiate the album from indie-pop: an unusual optimism in minor keys that invokes the wonder of staring into space, flowing instrumentals, chorus-less tunes, liberal use of theremin.
Those instrumentals are important because they signal that the The Perseids is more than just a collection of songs: it’s a full-album experience, meant to be heard as a thing. There are highlight tracks, like gentle opener “Smoke in the Field” and the beautiful “Gorgon,” but those two songs are even better when heard in context. The placement of the ominous, mournful “Intrepid” directly before “Gorgon” accentuate’s the latter’s fluidity and reveals a corner of the tune that could be missed or underappreciated in a standalone listening.
The 11 songs of The Perseids create an elegant yet weighty whole. Even though the songs have a lot of space to let sounds echo in (sometimes literally), they never feel empty or undercooked. The tunes gel, and the mood holds. “Swift-Tuttle” is a glacially slow tune built on pad synths that would be rarely heard if considered on its own (except perhaps by ambient enthusiasts), but in the context of the album it makes perfect sense and pulls its own weight. No track here falters when the whole album is listened to at once.
The Orionids EP is not that much different than The Perseids, but it is different enough that I can see how it would achieve the goal of socializing and contextualizing The Lovely Few’s sound. “Orion” sounds just a nudge removed from the mood of Postal Service’s “This Place is a Prison,” what with the distant drumming and electronic loops. The song is more linear, in somewhat of a verse/chorus/verse structure. “Sci Fi Novels” features an electric guitar with its bass knob turned way up as the basis of the song, while reverent “Hunter” is the tune that can segue perfectly into enjoying The Perseids. (Aside from the :24 closer “Celestial Chord,” which is exactly that; you can run it straight into Perseids opener “Smoke in the Field,” and hardly know the albums have switched.) The one exception to the “knocking the pointy edges off” strategy is the glitchy “Try Again,” which is a weird outlier in many ways.
The Lovely Few’s beautiful music is some of the most enveloping that I’ve heard this year. I get lost inside The Perseids, checking out all the nooks and crannies and little sounds that have been lovingly placed inside it. It’s a fully-realized musical vision that often eschews the sure pop moves for the album consistency ones. I love the sound, I love the albums, and I fully recommend these releases to adventurous listeners who still love full albums.