It’s nearly summer, which means that it’s time for optimistic, jaunty music. Teenager‘s bright, melodic San Francisco pop is just the thing to help you shake those wintry blues. (And goodness knows there were enough of them in this long winter.) The Magic of True Love has everything you need in a summer album: relaxed vibe, warm moods, driving songs, wistful ballads, and lyrics for young lovers.
It’s tough to nail the relaxed/energetic balance, but Teenager gets it just right here. There are fast songs and slow songs in good amounts, but it’s the mid-tempo tunes that shine brightest. In that most difficult of tempos, striking arrangements, brash vocal melodies, and careful songwriting keep me glued to the sound.
Songwriter Bevan Herbekian draws from a vast amount of influences to enact this deft pop dance. Queen could have written the vocal arrangements in the 6-minute highlight “Black is Back.” Subtle Beatles touches color the arrangements throughout. The punctilious piano rhythms and swirling psychedelia-lite of The Morning Benders/POP ETC come to mind in “Broke” (which Independent Clauses was proud to debut). The Beach Boys’ distinct background vocal style appears in the title track. There’s some Paul Simon hiding in “Two Timing Machines”–and that one starts out with the lyric “One is a lonely number.” (What up, Three Dog Night?!)
Even with all these references to other sounds, The Magic of True Love avoids becoming just a giant pastiche by providing memorable melodies and lyrics. “Broke” is relatable to anyone who’s been young and poor and in love, while “A Believer (40 Days & 40 Nights)” hits a similar audience by starting off with “Hung over in our Sunday’s best / there’s nothing like a smile from a friend.” The title itself is a banner that very aptly spreads over all the tunes: even if you don’t hear all the lyrics, the vibe is very much one of romance and optimism.
Still, it’s not all chipper popcraft here: “Sunday Afternoon” is a falsetto-heavy, lounge-ready piano ballad, while the title track itself is a wistful acoustic guitar-led ode to the fact that the lovers we break up with slowly become strangers again. In fact, that is the “magic” of true love: “I turn strangers to friends into lovers/ and then back again/ta-da.” Oof. I won’t spoil anymore of the lyrics, but there are some sharp turns of phrase in this tune.
But even in its wistful low point, it still doesn’t give over to unescapable sadness. This is a diverse, freewheeling album that has a large number of points to check out. If you’re a fan of traditional pop songwriting, not just the forefathers but stuff like comes out on Merge Records, you’ll be all up in The Magic of True Love. Put it on the car stereo and drive with your lover in the other seat; it’s a perfect soundtrack.
1. “Zeek and Axl Rose” – Automotive High School. The softer side of AHS’ fuzzed-out pop/pop-punk is just as hooky in a completely different way. The band is quickly moving up my “to-watch” list for 2013.
2. “Graveyard” – LVL UP. I keep a special place in my heart for video-game inspired music, and LVL UP’s punked-out geek pop is right in that space.
3. “Not a Riot” – Permanent Makeup. A wiry, low-slung, yelled punk tune with a neat guitar solo. No, for real.
4. “An Inter-dimensional Spat for the Right to Walk Away the Victor” – Hectorina. Not for the faint of heart or ear, this is a math/garage/post-punk/pop tune that is complex and almost entirely unique. If Queen and The Mars Volta got together, they’d both agree on this. Maybe.
5. “Hurricanes, XO” – Beat Radio. Is there ever not a market for enthusiastically fuzzed-out pop tunes?
6. “Come On. Stand Out.” – 7Bit Hero. A giddy slice of Australian electro-pop.
7. “Fame is for Assholes (Feat. Chiddy)” – Hoodie Allen. It finally happened.
8. “Tiny Kiss” – Hey Anna. This indie-pop tune is whimsical and propulsive, with memorable guitar work.
9. “Sandblonde” – The Bear & The Sea. I am here to state that I never stopped loving chillwave.
It never fails. Just about the time I’m about to totally write off rock and roll as a thing of my past, a band comes along and sucks me back in. This time, it’s Wild Adriatic with their The Lion EP.
There’s no way to describe the band except rock and roll. Their songs have huge, distorted, hooky riffs backing up an attitude-filled lead singer. The bass and drums just crush the rhythm/low end. There are unironic guitar solos. The whole thing sounds like if the theatricality of Queen met the bombast of Jane’s Addiction, especially “Lion in Its Cage.” Your head will almost involuntarily bang. Is there any higher praise for rock and rollers?
But there are touches of other rock styles. “By Now” has Southern rock’s flair to it, while “The Writer” appropriates Muse’s arch grandiosity. With only five tracks, there’s no filler to be had on Wild Adriatic’s EP, and that’s always fun to hear. “Your Ways” does tend a little bit too much toward modern rock for my taste, but hey, that’s just me. Rock on, Wild Adriatic. Rock on.
APL‘s Ancient Tunes requires an operational definition of “ancient.” If “ancient” is first century hymns, we’re not exactly there. If it’s late ’70s/ early ’80s radio, then this album is titled perfectly. Ancient Sounds sounds as if Adam Lindquist (who is APL) ate a radio set to an “oldies” station and then spit out thirteen tunes in response to the indigestion.
Not to suggest that these are repulsive or heartburn-inducing, as they’re not. But there is a direct line between the iconic sounds of Queen/The Who/Beach Boys/Elton John/Leonard Cohen and APL. These songs would have no basis if not for those forebears. But this is no pastiche. Lindquist filters the sounds through a distinctly modern tonal idiom: the angular, manic snarkiness of Say Anything-style punk. It’s present predominantly in the vocals, but it sneaks into the music a bit as well.
Add up all those pieces in your head and try to imagine it. Difficult, right? Well, it’s a bit challenging for Lindquist to synthesize into a cohesive whole, too. He jerks back and forth between styles, almost as if he were changing the dial on a radio. “Blistered Fingers” features blistering organ playing reminescent of ’70s rock; the tune butts up against “An Ancient Tune (How to Rip Off Leonard Cohen With The Best of Them),” which is a glorious acoustic musing on the meaning of “Hallelujah” before it gets bored and goes Joe Walsh pop (it’s as weird as it sounds). Then it goes on for two and half more minutes. It’s a good song, but it’s baffling. It follows zero rules, conventions or considerations. It just is.
That’s the way many of the tunes here are. They’re packed full of good ideas that come up unexpectedly; so unexpectedly, in fact, that they jarred me. I’m all for stops and starts (I knew what math rock was before I knew pop radio existed), but this is just a headscratcher. And at 48 minutes, there is more than enough time for Lindquist to unspool his singular vision (and to keep you puzzled).
There are highlights, though. “Reunion Day” makes the most of Lindquist’s love of odd chord structures and unique instrumentation (accordion/shaker/bgvs, for one section) and pours it into a modern pop idiom. Closer “Tell Me, Are You Pulling Away?” appropriates a Jackson Browne/James Taylor acoustic vibe to ground the gutwrenching vocal/lyrical finale.
The other songs, as I have noted, are a veritable who’s who of musical styles from the late seventies and early eighties, as filtered through a modern lens. Queen’s exuberant, jam-packed pop features prominently at least by comparison, and probably as inspiration.
I would love to hear more from APL. Lindquist seems like the sort who has ambitions so massive that it’s going to take a while before he can wrangle those impulses into their best form. Ancient Tunes is a good release, but it’s not the best he can do. Get in on the ground floor and take the elevator up with his subsequent releases.
If you read my review of Microbunny’s 49 Swans recently, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of seasonal music. It’s not a hard and fast rule; I just find myself listening to more pop-punk in summer than I do in winter. And so, The Lions Rampant‘s It’s Fun to Do Bad Things hit me at exactly the right time. This, dear readers, is summer music.
The Lions Rampant produces a bombastic blast of rock’n’roll that’s heavy on guitars, organ, attitude and vices. With titles like “Cocaine Anne,” “Cigs and Gin” and title track “It’s Fun to Do Bad Things,” it’s very clear what lifestyle TLR lives. And for roughly forty minutes, their brand of “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” is the most engaging thing going.
The band’s adrenaline-fueled mishmash works perfectly and never gets repetitive. The members appropriate Hot Hot Heat (remember them?) on “The Lights On,” with an upbeat piano riff and a melodic approach to the vocals. This is distinctive because vocalist Stuart Mackenzie spends most of his time hollering, wavering somewhere between an out-and-out yell (“I Need (Your Love)” starts off with Mackenzie yelling “Kick out the jams!”, MC5-style) and a snarling speak/sing. It fits the splashy, charging rock perfectly.
And the members know they’re awesome, which makes this set of songs even more enjoyable. “Give Me” steals Queen’s shtick, demanding that someone give him someone to love. It’s not a cover; it’s a direct challenge to Queen, apparently. Or maybe they don’t know about Queen. Or maybe they don’t even care. Yeah, who really cares? I think they’d prefer I just shut up and dance.
They don’t demand dancing on “Cigs and Gin.” That’s because they destroy pop song structures with the tune, taking stops and starts to a new level. They let Mackenzie ramble on for about half the song without any accompaniment from the band. But it’s not divisible into this half and that half; he’ll ramble for twenty seconds, then the band will crash in, then drop out twenty seconds later, only to crash in five later, and on and on. It keeps the listener on point, as there’s absolutely no way to tell what’s going to happen. A whole album of this would be frustrating, probably; but in this context, it’s hands down the best track. It rocks when the band kicks it in, and it rocks when the band isn’t stomping through. It’s easily the best rock song I’ve heard all year.
There are a half dozen more songs on this album that deserve to be talked about, but there’s not the space nor your attention span for that. Just go buy It’s Fun to Do Bad Things by the Lions Rampant. If you like sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, or bands that espouse that ideology, you will love the Lions Rampant. Highly recommended for the rock’n’rolla in you.
Pillowhead’s Convictions EP does just about everything right that you can do in an EP. They establish their sound, display variations on that theme, drop in a cover, and then bring it back home with a solid tune as a closer. That’s all in five songs.
Yeah. Be amazed.
Pillowhead plays a sort of rock that isn’t pop-punk but isn’t exactly rock’n’roll. It’s not as giddy as the pop/rock on the radio, but it’s not so overly serious in its music that it falls under the modern rock label. They tackle really heavy topics on the EP (another plus!) but they do it thoughtfully and without ham-fisted theatrics. Even when a choir comes in on “The Reasons,” it doesn’t feel over the top.
If it was going to get overblown, it would have long before, when the singer starts singing to his mother about his and her failures in their relationship (for those keeping track at home: the last time this was an effective tactic not mocked by the mainstream was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”). But it never does. Pillowhead manages to make the maudlin manageable.
“The Revelation” drops into a nice groove and takes the band in a much more low-key direction, eschewing the epic for the sake of a good tune (yet another check mark!). “55 Broad” has an extended instrumental section that shows the instrumental and songwriting chops of the band (can this band get any better?).
They chose to cover “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” by the Postal Service, which is a brilliant move on several levels. First off, they hooked me with the promise of this track; I (along with the rest of the indie world) love any and all covers of the Postal Service. Secondly, they didn’t mess with the track; they played it as a rock band playing a straight cover of a indie-techno song. Finally, they pulled it off extremely well. Yet another kudos for the cart.
“Diseased, Misused and Wasted Youth” wraps things up; it’s also the title track, as the line “you’ve got convictions/you’ve got beliefs” shows up. It’s an emotive, powerful track, but it’s also got some solid melodies. It’s not your usual rock track, and that’s great.
This is the best possible EP Pillowhead could have released. Their songs are solid, their delivery is pitch-perfect, and their skills are undeniable. If you like rock or pop, you need this EP right now. We all know there is little justice in the music world, but if there were, you would already know about Pillowhead, ’cause everyone should know about Pillowhead. Amazing stuff.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.