Mike Llerena‘s five-song EP Absence & the Heart is a blast of punk-folk adrenaline that fans of The Menzingers will latch onto immediately. I put “punk” in front of “folk” instead of the more common reverse (folk-punk) because Llerena can play folk, but it takes less than thirty seconds into the first song for Llerena to roar “my life’s a wreck” in a throat-shredding yell over punk-rock guitar distortion and tone. “End of the Line” kicks off with a wiry punk-rock guitar melody before dropping into the standard punk-rock guitar chug that has served so well for so many years. “Lady Rock & Roll” is a bit more old-school rock at the beginning, but again, Llerena lurches into full-on punk rock blitz before thirty seconds are up.
These punk rock blasts (complete with the occasional “whoa-oh”) are anchored by Llerena’s insistent tenor, which is in the same vein as The Menzingers’ vocal tone. The melodies share similarities as well. But Llerena is no knock-off; where The Menzingers can ratchet up to snarling tunes, Llerena ratchets down to ballads. Lead single “Rosanna” has an old-school country/rock’n’roll fusion vibe, while “Dear Lonely” is an acoustic ballad that draws equally on the melodic aesthetics of “acoustic songs by punk rockers” and lonesome country tunes.
If you’re looking for some punk rock to get your summer going, Mike Llerena can help you out. But he can also get you a sad song or two, if that’s what you need. Overall, this is a strong demonstration of varied songwriting from Llerena.
The acoustic guy/girl duo is an old, old form, but the beauty of intertwined vocals almost ensures that it will never fall out of use. Laura and Greg‘s Forever For Sure lives happily and easily inside the bounds of that genre, delivering chipper, charming indie-pop songs. The easiest comparison is the Weepies, with whom they share a predilection for precise, staccato rhythms and stark framing of individual melodic elements. But where The Weepies are titularly mopey, L&G are more sprightly in tempo and mood.
While opener “Muscle Memory” and the title track make use of wistful guitar and fragile voice, tracks like the handclap-laden “Pennies” and the woozy ’50s charm of “Fireflies” evoke the enthusiasm of Mates of State. “Undertow (water waves)” is a strummy tune that draws off some country vibes, even. But it’s in their intimate moments that they shine brightest: “Same World” is a joy to behold, with their two beautiful voices blending and swirling over a meticulously picked guitar. Muscle Memory is fresh, vital, and warm, the sort of work that makes you forget about the difficulties and injustices of life for a while. Who doesn’t want that?
On the other end of the spectrum from Laura & Greg in the indie world is The View Electrical, a dreamy band that can drift around calmly or ratchet up to post-hardcore thrashiness (complete with screaming).
The trick they pull off in Roseland is making all of their motion feel seamless: opener “Haunted by a Dream” turns a cascading acoustic guitar line into a lead guitar line by lifting it in the mix above groove-laden drums, treble-heavy pad synths, and grumbling bass. Within a few more seconds it has exploded into multiple vocal lines (including a scream) before closing. They may throw the kitchen sink at this record (the second song opens with a glitchy electro-pop clicks, the third with four-on-the-floor dance-rock beats, the fourth with delicate acoustic picking), but the strong engineering job and distinct vocal approach keeps this from being a mishmash.
Where the mixing pulls out all the stops to lend coherence to the sound, the vocals float along blithely, seemingly unconcerned by the herculean task that they’re given. Leading a band with the ambitions of The View Electrical is not easy, but the vocalist does it. My favorite of his approaches is somewhere between Surrounded’s whisper-singing (“Haunted by a Dream”) and Sigur Ros’s aria-esque delivery (“It Was Time”); it’s airy but grounded, breathy but solid. It ties together the many parts of The View Electrical’s sound neatly. Even when a more direct tonal approach is called for in songs, the singer seems to corral the disparate parts of the sound and marshal them in the listener’s defense.
Towards the back half of the album things get a little more straightforward and aggressive. “Death and the Young Man” is laden with aggressive beats, dropping out the lightness of the first few tracks; “In My Defense” and “Protect Us” are dissonant and heavy. Still, even in tunes as minor-key and ominous as “Protect Us” there’s a break from the gloom in the way of a dreamy guitar layered on top. The band returns to the Surrounded-esque rock/dream-pop by the end of the record, showing the minor-key sections to be part and parcel of their omnivorous approach: the thrashy, post-rock/post-metal moment of “We Won’t Stay” is dropped right into the middle of one of their most beautiful (9-minute!) songs. It’s similar to how Sigur Ros uses heaviness, but that doesn’t make it feel any less impressive or unexpected.
Roseland is an extremely ambitious record that succeeds on many levels. If you’re into thoughtful music that doesn’t bother with labels (indie-pop, indie-rock, electro, post-rock, post-metal), you’ll get a lot of listens out of this record.
I’ve sung the praises of pop-punk many times before (including quite recently); still, it’s moved into a legacy spot in my heart. I cover the occasional single and video, but covering full releases is rare these days. But you can’t leave your sonic or physical friends behind (isn’t this the moral of all early 2000s pop-punk/emo?), and thus I’m here to tell you that Dan Webb and the Spiders‘ Perfect Problem is rad. If you’re into snare-heavy pop music with enthusiastic melodies and excess adrenaline played very loudly, you should look it up.
Perfect Problem hits right in my sweet spot: pop-punk that has enough meat to not sound like an airy pop-rock tune a la Boys Like Girls but enough melodic bonafides to stay away from ragged hollered/screamed vocals a la the Menzingers. Even the tougher vocal performances here (“Night Games,” “The Neighborhood”) rough up the tone a bit but never sacrifice a charming melody or ubiquitous, spot-on high harmony. Even crunchy songs like “Moment,” which was recorded by inimitable Steve Albini, balance the brittle distorted guitar chop and thundering back-line with other generic influences: there’s a ’50s-pop influence in the rhythmic patterns, guitar solo, and soaring chorus vocal line. It’s these subtle influences and recording flourishes that give this a volume and depth separating it from streamlined, radio-friendly pop.
The highlight is the title track, which combines all of the best parts of Dan Webb’s sound together: infectious melodies, charging guitars, harmonies, and an upbeat vibe. If you’re into pop-punk with just the light scrubbing of grit, Dan Webb is on your team.
Yeesh‘s No Problem is the fantastic result of 40 years of rock experimentation. If you scour through the impressive sonic melange of tracks like “Slip,” “Linda Lee,” and “Genesis Pt. 1,” you’ll find traces of (deep breath) Black Flag, the Minutemen, various grunge howlers, Blur, Modest Mouse, The Strokes, The Vaccines, The Pixies, Hot Water Music, The Menzingers, countless unnamed punk bands, and post-rock bands that emphasize the rock. What’s not included might be easier to list than what is. (No reggae or folk, for example.)
This level of sonic re-appropriation and pastiche makes it difficult to review; each song is its own distinct head trip. “Friends/Shadows” is the most frantic Menzingers song never recorded, with a math-rock breakdown for the heck of it. “Different Light” is a mid-tempo singalong made unusual by atypical reverb settings on the guitar; the propulsive “Watch Yr Step” lives on the boundary of punk and post-hardcore. “Zakk Radburn Teenage Detective” starts out with chiming guitars reminiscent of early ’00s indie-pop, then layers the most brutal guitar noise of the entire album on top of it. They never resolve the tension there, instead using it to power some start/stop acrobatics.
Listening to all of No Problem is a mind-bending experience. Yeesh doesn’t see any contradiction in having soaring guitar lines compete with gnarly low-end rhythm guitar (closer “Shock” most prominently, but it’s everywhere); they don’t see any problem in mixing poppy melodies, brute force guitars, polyrhythmic rhythm section, and artistic guitar effects. This kitchen sink approach to songwriting results in something truly inventive and creative: a set of ten songs that kept me guessing the entire time. If you think that complex arrangements can and should be set in the service of pummeling eardrums, No Problem may be high on your year-end list.
I absolutely love The Menzingers for their striking combination of tough vocals, melodic pop-punk chops, and intriguing lyrics. Whenever I find echoes of their work in bands, I jump on those releases. The Radio Reds’ Memory Loss hits all three of The Menzingers’ categories. Opener “Moloch” combines anthemic, soaring melodies with hard-hitting lyrics about the effects of war. The rest of the album traffics in more introspective, poetic material about interpersonal conflict, but “Moloch” is a blistering condemnation of the American treatment of veterans. Coming from a military family, it resonated hard.
Vocalist Stephen (no last name provided) keeps a tough edge on his vocals throughout the album, snarling a bit without turning the lines into yelling. (Don’t worry, there are some yelling sections for bros and girls in the pit: “Southern Belle,” “The Artist.”) This creates a nice tension that meshes neatly with the tension between the melodic sections of the tracks and the mash-those-chords breakdowns. The Radio Reds know how to balance the songwriting so that neither side of their songwriting style gets slighted. There are extremes, as “The Artist” is a furious street-punk endeavor that–enigmatically but excellently–includes horn in a third-wave ska fashion; “Let It Show” has the old-school pop-punk drumming style (always welcome in this corner), screamed vocals, and some metal overtones in the guitar work. On the other end, “Interlude” is just that, in fine, morose Brand New style. The horns reprise wonderfully, in a jazzier mode this time.
The Radio Reds have a lot going on in Memory Loss. They’re refining their own voice in the punk community, as well as tinkering with horns and quieter tunes (“Knife”) for variation. I look forward to seeing where The Radio Reds go from here, as Memory Loss is an engaging, intriguing listen for fans of The Menzingers, Titus Andronicus, The Gaslight Anthem, and the like.
Post-rock is about as avant-garde as I get, with rare exceptions. But ARP caught my attention with music that stretches the boundaries of pop music to the point that “Gravity (For Charlemagne Palestine)” sounds very much like strings-fronted post-rock. MORE is a weird trip through perky, charming music as thought through by a musician very interested in the deconstruction and reconstruction of sounds. “Invisible Signals,” the interlude following “Gravity,” is a spun-dial clip of radio found sounds: it leads directly into “More (Blues),” which is an Otis Redding-style blues/Motown/soul song complete with horns. ARP’s low tenor/high baritone voice fit nicely in the unexpected genre, and both arrangement and melody sound great.
It’s that sort of weird back alley that ARP is interested in on MORE, leading to the spaced-out intro of the harpsichord-driven “A Tiger in the Hall at Versailles” and a two-minute clip of nature sounds called “17th Daydream.” “V2 Slight Return” is a minute-long guitar experiment. “Persuasion” is a six-minute straight-ahead instrumental rock song. The sharp, clear production holds things together as well as it can, but your willingness to follow an experimenter where his trails and trials lead him is going to be the main feature in your enjoyment (or lack thereof) of ARP’s MORE. That, and whether you like optmistic post-rock. I enjoyed the album for its unique perspective, but this is certainly a “maybe not for everyone” release.
The Vaccines’ first album scratched an itch I didn’t know I had: hooky, buzzy, speedy rock that fell between pop-punk and pop-rock. Since finding what I didn’t know I was missing, I’ve been loving the style ever since. (I must sadly admit that I am remiss in not having checked out their recent follow-up yet.) So it was with great joy that I came across Automotive High School, which plays a similar brand of hooky, buzzy rock.
The band’s Demo 2 kicks off with the perky “Look. It’s Gone.”, which marries playful verses to a driving, insistent chorus. The high vocals and treble-happy guitars in the former section both give off a charming vibe, which turns ominous and desperate for the chorus. They nail the transition between the two moods, as well as making each chorus feel a little more dark than the last. It makes for a striking tune that grabs attention. “Wonder Sings” ratchets up the playfulness, with the lead riff sounding like a children’s sing-song melody being blasted through a Sleigh Bells speaker. Closer (I know! I was sad too!) “Planks” is more like the first tune than the second, sticking to a mid-tempo romp vaguely reminiscent of Menzingers’ unusual quiet/loud structures. There’s still a bit of sing-song in the vocals, which works perfectly here.
This three-song demo couldn’t have piqued my interest more. I want to hear more Automotive High School, stat. If you’re into loud, fun, buzzy rock, you’ve got to hear this band.
Independent Clauses is but one man at the moment, and that means that it’s impossible for me to cover everything that comes through the front doors. Some notable music flies under the radar for lack of time. To remedy these oversights, I’ve created two shout-out lists. Today’s is for the more pop-oriented stuff, while tomorrow’s is for indie-rock and singer/songwriter.
Alex and the XO’s – North to the Future Here’s some fun ukulele-fronted pop-rock with a female vocalist. Don’t confuse this for an Ingrid Michaelson copy: there’s a lot of crunch in these pop-rock tunes alongside the ukulele strum.
Christian Hansen – C’mon Arizona. This driving-ready synth-pop features a baritone vocalist for a change. Fans of Talking Heads should check the infectious “Spirit Guide” and the money-titled “You Were a Juggalo.”
Coed Pageant – The Seasons EPs Vol. 4: The Fallout. Boy/girl pop that goes for the grand sweep instead of the intimate coo. If Mates of State thought that their loudest arrangement could use a couple more instruments for scope, they might end up in this arena.
Hostage Calm – Please Remain Calm. Gonna throw my hat in here with the rest of the punk world: this one is pretty stellar. I’m a huge Menzingers fan, and this pushes all the same buttons lyrically and musically (only with a bit less gruffness).
Nora and One Left – Bicycle. Enthusiastic, girl-fronted indie-pop that occasionally includes accordion.
The World Record – Freeway Special. Similar to Fountains of Wayne, TWR goes to great lengths and many sub-genres in search of the perfect pop song. And check that sweet album art.
Wise Girl – Wise Girl EP. Straight-up power-pop with a great female vocalist. Turn it up loud.
7. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth. Turning its back on the morose portraits that characterized All Eternals Deck, TY was a verifiable romp through the psyches of doomed characters fighting that good fight to stay alive. The addition of horns and enthusiasm worked wonders for Darnielle’s mojo.
6. Challenger – The World is Too Much For Me. Beautiful synth-pop that was equal parts trembling and exultation. Dancy moods and undeniable melodies met a sense of late-night, modern-society dread in a masterful combination. Quite an astonishing debut.
5. The Menzingers – On the Impossible Past. This tightly constructed album is one of the heaviest lyrical statements I’ve ever heard in a punk album, taking on the past and Americanism in a profound way. Their prowess of gruff pop-punk continues, leaving an album that won’t let go of your throat in its wake.
4. Cobalt and the Hired Guns – Everybody Wins. It doesn’t get more enthusiastic than Cobalt. This pop-punk/indie-pop mashup resulted in some of the best “shout-it-out” tunes of the year, while showing that you can indeed still make gold with just three chords, enthusiasm, and a solid lyric. Oh, and horns. Lots of horns.
3. Jenny and Tyler – Open Your Doors. The only artist to appear on 2011’s list and this list, Jenny and Tyler followed up their turbulent, commanding Faint Not with a gentle release looking expectantly toward peace. Its highest moments were revelatory.
2. Come On Pilgrim! – Come On Pilgrim!. Josh Caress and co. lovingly made an expansive, powerful collection of tunes that spanned the wide breadth of modern folk. Leaning heavily on rumbling, low-end arrangements, this was everything that I expected it to be from the first moment longtime solo artist Caress announced he was putting together a band.
1. Jonas Friddle & The Majority – Synco Pony and Belle De Louisville. You should never release a double album as your debut, unless you’ve really got the goods to back it up with. Friddle’s folk explosion is worth every second, as he deftly explores just about every nook and cranny of modern folk, from revivalist antique appropriation to protest songs to modern love songs. The immaculate arrangements would sell it, if his lithe voice hadn’t already given it away. Amazing stuff.
Three releases on my slate all include the word “giants,” so I thought I’d put them together in a post.
I relish the folk-punk/acoustic-punk releases that come my way (e.g., Attica! Attica!, The Wild, Destroy Nate Allen!), so the great folk/punk of Among Giants‘ Truth Hurts caused great excitement when it crossed my proverbial desk. Singer/songwriter Greg Hughes’ rapidfire vocal delivery is the predominant characteristic here, as what Hughes lacks in traditional vocal tone he makes up for in melodic and lyrical enthusiasm. Standout tracks “A Letter,” “Cross Your Heart” and “Get Your Shit Straight” all rely on fast tempos, sing-along melodies and distinctive chop strumming for their power. Most of the tunes are upbeat musically, but the lyrics contrast the optimistic sound.
Truth Hurts reads like a series of journal entries looking back at a self-destructive time in the narrator’s life. (“Living in a drug isn’t as fun as it seems,” Hughes memorably notes.) Other tracks plead with friends to get their shit together, acknowledge that the narrator will fail miserably in the future, and ruminate on loneliness and insomnia. Even through all of this, there’s a consistently hopeful outlook running through the album that makes Truth Hurts a raw but not dreary listen. I’ve fallen in love with Among Giants, and fans of acoustic punk should as well.
Ivy Mike‘s Giants does have some acoustic-based tracks on it, but it’s predominantly a riff-heavy rock affair. Any album that opens with a squall of dissonant distortion before dropping into a Queens of the Stone Age-esque guitar riff is not messing around. Just to make sure you know what this band is about, this power trio (!) put a picture of a Godzilla-esque monster on the album cover. They’re here to rock, and rock, and rock some more.
They live up to the billing, as they can build thunderous walls of sound while still retaining melody. “Some Kind of Way” has a Strokes-ian attitude, while the strutting guitar riff of “Monster” has all kinds of swagger. Still, they’re not a one trick pony: the middle of the album gives way to a surprisingly tense and nuanced section. The tense “Lowly Eyes” and “Light Years” show some tasteful restraint, while “Sweet Lipped Woman” is an remorseful acoustic tune at the heart of the album. They swing back to the rock in the final act with the stomping tunes “Smoke and Mirrors” and “Just Like Daughter,” before closing out the album with a gorgeous acoustic tune “Oh, Desire.”
For an album that starts off in total rock mode, Ivy Mike’s Giants offers surprising diversity in mood and incredibly strong songwriting throughout. Highly recommended for fans of rock.
It’s not just acoustic punk I love. I also have a space in my heart for good ‘ol pop-punk. Ma Jolie‘s …Compared to Giants is a great big slice of blue-collar pop-punk, shying away from nasally vocals in favor of gruff melodies and yelling (a la IC faves The Menzingers). Ma Jolie’s frantic tunes don’t make quite as big a point to make the lyrics clearly heard as the Menzingers do, but their breakneck tempos and thrilling melodies more than make up for that. The best tunes are in major keys, as the minor key tunes (“Size 10, Nikes,” “Era and the Metric System”) don’t feel as fun or engaging as happier standouts “88 MPH,” “How Far is 5k,” and “Charades.” If you’re down for some shout-it-out pop-punk that’s a bit more mature in delivery and song structure, go for …Compared to Giants.
I’m spending my summer in Austin, Texas, doing an internship. For the most part it has been a restful and rewarding experience, but like any other experience, it’s been lonely and frustrating at times. I’ve had The Menzingers’ world-weary but determined On the Impossible Past on repeat because I can relate with the Pennsylvania punk band’s seething frustration when appropriate. Their frustrations originally differed from mine: they’re banging their heads against regrets, the past, and what it means to be American. But as I listened to the album over and over, I found myself right there in the boat with them: How do we get over our pasts? And why are our feelings about America such a part of that process?
To the Menzingers, being American is a conflicted thing. Opener “Good Things” states their difficulties right up front:
“I’ve been closing my eyes to find
Why all good things should fall apart
Like when we would take rides in your American muscle car
I felt American for once in my life
I never felt it again”
Being American is tied up in the past, the present, and the future. The car, the experience of unbounded freedom, the slow fade-in of priorities and responsibilities; these are part of growing up, and they’re part of growing up American. Teenagerdom is awesome, and not every country’s 17-year-olds get to have it. They don’t get to ride around in cars and have petty emotional troubles and make crazy memories. When I was 17, I didn’t think about that; mine was the only reality I knew. America was the only reality I even knew of. I knew that other places were exactly like mine, because mine was the only thing I could conceive.
And that changes, the older you get. “I’ve cursed my lonely memory/with picture-perfect imagery/Maybe I’m not dying/I’m just living in decaying cities,” one of the Menzingers’ two vocalists sings in “The Obituaries.” The realization that things outside of me mattered was one of a few stark realizations I’ve had that changed everything. Looking back at the blissfully ignorant past can be a cause for shame, or wishing you knew then what you know now. And at its extremes, it can cause people to renounce “all that.” As the band proclaims in “Mexican Guitars,”
“I did what I did to get away from this
Cause everything that’s happened has left me a total wreck
And everything that I do now is meaningless
So I’m off to wander around the world for a little bit”
Since Americanism is inextricably tied up in the past, it’s inseparable from regrets. In trying to forget the regrets, it’s easy to want to renounce the youthful complicit Americanism. Maybe we could move on to a more enlightened, post-Americanized self to match a post-regrets self? (The fact that neither thing exists does not mean they are not desirable ideas.) “Gates” ties the thoughts together tighter, vocally pointing out a-MER-i-can and linking the experience of an American summer to a relationship gone wrong. Here’s the chorus: “I’m going up to your gates today/to throw my lonely soul away/I don’t need it/You can take it back.”
But as of this writing, the Menzingers are preparing for an American tour. They’re still from Scranton, PA, which now has an iconic American-ness as the location of The Office. If they go to another country, they will be noted as Americans. And no matter how conflicted our opinions are on our unasked-for economic privilege and (occasionally) undesirable cultural forebears, the tag will stick with all of us who were born or nationalized in America. We have to decide what to do with it.
Claiming American-ness, as Brett McCracken notes, “can seem gauche and vulgar” because of the rah-rah jingoism that has long been a part of American-ness. But it’s not all there is about being American. Apple pie and baseball are loved by coarse boors, the the high cultured and everyone in between. No, there is a place for us to come to terms with all that American-ness has tied up in it.
There is a meaning of America that sits outside of our political confines. It is a meaning that has an analogue in any and every country’s citizens, regardless of politics: “being American” forces us to deal with what it means to be a part of things. We are, simply, a part of things that we didn’t ask to be a part of. Do we reject the mantle? Do we change the narrative? Do we accept the idea wholesale, as it was given to us? All these things should matter to people of every country. They should matter to Americans. They matter to me. And July 4 is an appropriate time for Americans to think about these things.
In the novel Towers of Midnight by Brandon Sanderson and and Robert Jordan, the character Perrin is faced with a similar problem. He has been thrust into leadership, and he’s spent the better part of six books rejecting that he is a leader or waffling. But a point comes where he must make a decision. His thought process at the critical junction ends up being simple: “He hadn’t asked to become a leader, but did that absolve him of the responsibility? People needed him.” And that’s it. After all the run-up, all the wondering and wandering, the choice is there for him: Am I absolved? He decides no, and goes on to lead. (And do awesome things.)
We did not ask for our American-ness, but we are stuck with its burden until we claim it or reject it. If we claim it, it can be a source of joy and pride as well as challenge–America is not without problems, and claiming American-ness doesn’t absolve you from those. (Rather, it gives you the responsibility to deal with them, in whatever station you interact with them.) Rejecting the past just means we force it away when it appears, and it will appear; rejection of the past is not an erasure of the past. The Menzingers’ title track is a slowed-down, mournful, 93-second continuation of “Good Things,” where they drunkenly crash the car into a ditch on a wintry night. “We always dreamt of having nice things,” the vocalist says to close the song, pained. Until the mind-wiping process from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Minds becomes real, we have to figure out our pasts and all the Americanness that goes with it at some point.
And that’s how I found myself in league with The Menzingers and the thoughts espoused on their incredible album; as I am not making too many new memories in this temporary city, I have thought a great deal about old memories and future plans. I remember times where I didn’t want to be American–but what I really meant was that I didn’t want to be dominated by materialism, which I saw as an evil and inextricable from American-ness. I see a future where I might not live in America, due to the whims of the job market. These are parts of my personality that can’t have their relationship with American-ness extracted. The Menzingers and I can’t pull apart our pasts, presents and futures from America, because this is the culture that made us. We didn’t ask to be born here, but we were; we wouldn’t have the pasts we have if we were born elsewhere.
So, on July 4, what is my stance toward America? I love it. I love it because I am who I am for growing up here. I love the life I have, and that’s due to the un-asked for opportunities I have. Do I see a bigger world now than I did when I was 17? Yes, and it’s important. I don’t see just America, and I don’t see just its good parts. I don’t take my opportunities for granted, and I want to help others have the opportunities I have. There is no need to reject the American-ness that I didn’t ask for, when it can be used for good.
I was an American, and am an American, and will be an American, because its cultural pull shaped my past and will shape my future. I embrace that. Happy Independence Day.
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.