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.
I’m incredibly excited that I’ve finished my year-end lists actually correspond with the end of the year. Without further pontificating, here’s the first half of the year’s best.
Honorable Mention: LCD Soundsystem – Madison Square Garden Show. It’s not an official release, but it proves that the tightest live band in the world only got tighter with time. “Yeah” is an absolute powerhouse.
Quick note: SLTM the Podcast’s latest edition (episode 418), sponsored by Independent Clauses, is up now. Check it out!
Each genre has embedded strengths that double as weaknesses. The best bands in a genre will deal will those issues, either by subversion, exaggeration or infusion of other genres.
Oh Look Out has solved the fundamental problem/feature of video game-inspired music (playful, but not emotional) by meshing it with current guitar-based pop-rock (emotional, not playful). The result is the fascinating, fantastic Alright Alright Alright Alright Alright.
Alright‘s approximately 25 minutes leaves more of an impact than albums much longer because it knows what it can and can’t do. No riff is beaten into oblivion, no chorus sung repetitively, no song lasting longer than you wish it would. This is economical songwriting, as one might expect from a songwriter — who goes only by JP — so influenced by electronics (Can we tolerate slow, overstuffed computers?).
The one-two punch is “Analogatron” and “Bass, Not an 8-Track.” The most complete of the songs here, they have distinct vocal melodies, memorable vocal performances, meaningful rock sections, quirky video-game contributions, and deliberate song flow.
“Analogatron” can be appreciated by structuralists and pop-lovers alike. It builds like a standard rock song, opening with bass and vocals before bursting into acrobatic distorted guitar lines. The song adds evocative synths, then ratchets it up to a big conclusion. On the other hand, both the vocals and the guitars are catchy as anything, hinging on the line “When I’m dead, I’ll play cassettes!” Heck yes you will.
“Bass, Not an 8-track” is even better. It’s a fist-pumping, clapping, stomping anthem of a rock song. I got shivers when, at the climax of the song, JP hollers “TAKE! TAKE ME BACK! BASS! not an 8-TRACK!” over a stomping guitar line and synth majesty. This is pretty much all I could ask of a rock song.
But it’s not all herky-jerky pop-rock. The stark “Short Waves” and “Implode Alright” bring to mind keys-laden bedroom pop experiments of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Daniel Johnston and more — but in a much less frustrating, self-indulgent demeanor and tone than much bedroom pop. They’re delicate, emotional, hummable and able to be put on a mixtape for a girl. This is pretty much all I ask of a pop song.
Also, the persistent, perky keyboards of “Kam” are absolutely legit.
Alright Alright Alright Alright Alright is on my shortlist for best pop-rock album of the year, right up there with Generationals’ Actor-Caster and Laura Stevenson and the Cans’ Sit Resist. Its emotional and playful elements balance perfectly, giving me songs that I can feel good about but also feel something in while singing/yelling along. Seriously, what else do you want? Free? Oh, well, it’s that too.
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.