Waxahatchee – “Ivy Tripp”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Breathless” “<”

Bzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

That’s the first sound you hear on “Breathless,” the opening track to Katie Crutchfield’s third full-length as Waxahatchee. It’s a guitar-wall, a block of fuzz of an electric guitar settling into it’s distortion. It’s similar to the guitar in 2013’s “Misery Over Dispute,” but grittier, more forceful. “Ivy Tripp,” and especially “Breathless,” follows Crutchfield’s trend of increasingly confident electric songwriting, although the electric/acoustic balance is too far in favor of the former.

People that discovered Crutchfield through her 2012 debut, “American Weekend” (like myself), probably wouldn’t have guessed that she was in a punk band prior, cult favorites P.S. Eliot (with her sister Allison – frontwoman for the equally great Swearin’). “American Weekend” was entirely acoustic and lo-fi enough that she could’ve easily opened a recording program and recorded the whole thing in a bedroom. “Cerulean Salt,” one of the best albums of 2013 (a year filled with great albums), was able to mix electric and acoustic. Songs like “Misery Over Dispute” aligned with 90’s alt-rock, with a Weezer-like warm distortion to them. And tracks like the tear-inducing closer “You’re Damaged” proved acoustic ballads could fit right in with the plugged-in songs.

“Ivy Tripp” follows more open, progressive songwriting. It’s her most comprehensive album to date, with piano and synth incorporated at times. And for part of the album, the flow is just as jarring as it was on “Salt.” Right as “Breathless” starts to become droning in it’s fuzz, it gives way to the clean, acoustic opening of “Under a Rock.” Unfortunately, the album’s middle succumbs a few times to electric tracks that don’t have enough oomph to them, and may have worked better acoustic. It picks up again for the final third – two beautiful acoustic tracks, a piano ballad, and a circular, grungy bass-heavy song close out the album.

As usual, most of the songs on “Tripp” are sung to an unknown individual. This album is different from “Weekend” and “Salt,” in that it is as focused on the music as the vocals and lyrics, so there’s less lyrical standouts. But “<” has the repeated line “You’re less than me / I am nothing.” The song is also maybe the most interesting from a musical standpoint, as a building track with discordant guitars. Elsewhere, Crutchfield makes numerous references to water and, on “Air,” sings “I left you out like a carton of milk.”

Like the lyrics, her vocals on this album aren’t as much of the focus. But they’re still commanding, naturally.  They’re the strongest on “Air,” but they’re great throughout. The strongest quality in her music has always been the fact that she sounds like she’s making these albums for her, not for an audience – not a trait that’s usually a good thing. But “Ivy Tripp,” like the albums before, sounds like a work of grievances, of things that she needs to get off her chest. And the songwriting is more expansive, more confident, and comes with the biggest sound yet, but these still sound like songs recorded for her. The audience is merely a factor in her music; she’d like us to be included, but if we’re not, it’s okay. The songs are being made anyways.

If you like this, try: Any album from one of my absolute favorite bands, Laura Stevenson & the Cans. I recommend “Sit Resist.”

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Ummagma – “Rotation / Live and Let Die”

(Photo Credit: bandcamp)

Grade: B+

Ummagma are a little bit of an unconventional group – a sort of dreampop/shoegaze hybrid, consisting of just Shauna McLarnon from Canada and Alexx Kretov from Ukraine. McLarnon handles the lyrics and vocals, while Kretov tackles all of the instrumentation. The duo has released a single, containing “Rotation” and “Live and Let Die.” Both songs properly showcase their crossover sound in some memorable and easily listenable dreampop.

“Rotation” is a slow-building song. It starts with a low-key drum and synth beat, that kicks up around 35 seconds in. It’s centered around a repetitive synth beat, that seeps the song into a serious dreampop feel. McLarnon’s vocals sound swooping inside of a very condensed sound. The song’s medium energy and consistently full sound lend to a shoegaze resemblance, even if the guitar is only a slight factor. “Rotation” is ultimately the cross between dreampop and shoegaze, and it does both very well.

“Live and Let Die” is a much catchier song. It opens with a drum beat that’s already louder than the previous song’s peak. The song continues with the condensed, shoegaze type sound, but it features a guitar rhythm that’s much more resembling of a garage rock band. A heavier guitar presence lends to a dreamy sound, just one that’s more alt-based instead of pop. “Live and Let Die”s moderate tempo and medium volume acts as a compromise between dreampop and post-rock, and sounds familiar even though it really isn’t.

This is a very solid single, and a nice tease at anything the band might be working on. There seems to be a little something the songs are missing, just to pump up a little energy. But both songs are intricate and unique, combining a number of influences into an aura that sounds conventional until you really listen. They’re very easy songs to enjoy, dense without being unbreakable. Ummagma are doing their own thing; combining genres and doing it well. “Rotation / Live and Let Die” brings hope for whatever the band might release in the future.

The two songs are available for download and streaming here.

-By Andrew McNally

Veenstra – “People & The Woods”

(Photo Credit: bandcamp)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “I’m Sorry, I’m Lost” “The Hollow Realm”

“People & The Woods” is the third album in a trilogy – you can find my review of the second album, “Six Months of Death,” here – and it largely feels like the ending to a progressing narrative. It does what any finale to a trilogy should do, it kicks it up a notch. The album, much like the two previous, is wickedly lo-fi. It was all written and recorded by Francois Veenstra, and it often has the tone of an ambitious solo project. The trilogy isn’t exactly a happy one, as this album deals with finding yourself suddenly alone. While maybe not as existential of a topic as before, it’s one that’s just as striking.

This album has more of a band feel to it, although it is still a solo act. There are full band instruments on more of the tracks than before. For a finale, Veenstra wanted to go for a more cohesive feel. The album has a great balance because of it, with shorter, more ambient pieces intersecting some more traditional tracks. And the heaviness of the album’s story gets transferred through the varying volumes. Each sound, be it guitars, vocals, bass, drums, all are elements of the story. They’re never working against each other, instead complementing each other and working to fill a story. He continues to show an ability to switch up an album before any certain idea gets too old, providing for a very satisfying listen. It’s interesting that the album has just as much of a dreamy feel, despite the added instruments. Even with the increase, the album feels more sparing, more distant than before, and it helps it to feel just as lonely as the character.

The only real criticism I can muster is a slight dissatisfaction with the final track, “Mirror Lake.” Veenstra’s longer songs have often been some of the bigger opuses of the albums, but the song is instrumental and softer. On a purely sonic level, I was a little disappointed in a more subdued track to end the trilogy. But even then, I understand it on a level dealing with the album’s dark themes. Having a lighter, more ambient finale is a little haunting when you take the tone into account. Otherwise, I think it’s another solid experimental, lo-fi album. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s very good for those that it will. It’s a great finale, full of existential dream-pop and lo-fi rock that’ll likely stick in your mind for a while.

The album is available here.

-By Andrew McNally

Surgery In An Opera – “Sad Songs For the Sad State”

(Photo Credit: bandcamp)

Grade: B

It may help that I was, by chance, listening to Brand New’s “Deja Entendu” right before I put on this DIY EP from the trio called Surgery in an Opera. The band consists of Calvin Roberts on vocals and guitar, Eldon Campbell on bass and Joshua Strong on drums. In four songs, the band invokes the image of an early 2000’s pop-punk/emo band, which nostalgia seems to be bringing back to today. The band has a sound similar to that of Brand New without the budget – that catchy emo type of sound that isn’t afraid to go either acoustic or distorted.

The first and shortest track, “The Escape Artist,” feels like a true pop-punk song. It’s energetic and catchy, with fuzzy guitars and vaguely personal lyrics. Track two, “Down the Beaten Path, or a Song For Those in the Vehicle City,” is slower but more melodic, and it blends acoustic guitar with a distorted, electric one. Again, it’s a catchy song. And it doesn’t overstay it’s welcome – because around the three minute mark, the band stops for about five seconds before quickly jumping back into a chorus. “The Worker Bee Brings Home the Honey” is a song that takes its time to build up, leading up a slow climax and features guest vocals by the very emo-sounding Campbell. Finally, “Wounds Pt. 2” starts acoustic, with very typical pop-punk lyrics. But a very distorted electric guitar kicks in pretty quickly, and Roberts ends up making a very effective use of power chords. The song ends big and loud, blowing out the volume.

Surgery In An Opera are not doing anything revolutionary, and their lo-fi/DIY approach can be seen as both a good and bad quality to their music. But “Sad Songs For the Sad State” is a good little blast of emo/pop-punk. Roberts’ vocals are fine and they’re all along with each other. It’s a promising release for a band that sounds like they know what they’re doing. And if you’re going for that bit of early aughts nostalgia, this EP is just reminiscent enough to do the trick.

The EP is available for streaming here.

If you like this, try: I Kill Giants’ self-titled debut from earlier this year. A little heavier and scream-ier, but they’re another good up-and-coming nostalgia band.

-By Andrew McNally

Dads – “Pretty Good”

(Photo Credit: best-vinyl.blogspot.com)

Grade: B

Dads, a wonderfully fast and gleefully sad duo from New Jersey, have been looking to shed their emo background. In March they were crowned the best emo band ever in Property of Zack’s March Sadness competition (probably in part to being the only band interested in the competition and encouraging their fanbase to vote). But the emo branding bears some weights, as the word ’emo’ brings more bad bands to mind than good ones. So the duo hopes to change that on their new four track EP, “Pretty Good.” It yearns for their emo-leaning work, but for a band attempting outreaches, it succeeds.

The opening track, “My Crass Patch,” is easily the EP’s best. The song is vocally similar to their previous works, but feels heavier and angrier. It sets the transition off on the right foot, sending a different message than the carefree-yet-miserable feel of their 2012 album, “American Radass (This Is Important).” The second track, “Can I Be Yr Deadbeat Boyfriend?” continues with the heavy feel, and adds a little punk inspiration throughout it’s very short run. It is the most reminiscent of their older music, sounding similar to the heavily-intro blasts like “Groin Twerk” and “Grunt Work,” while still sounding more purposeful.

The third song, “Boat Rich,” sounds terrible out of context of the album. Taken for what it is, the song sounds like a cornier (dare I say, more ‘radio-friendly’) version of “Let’s Go to the Beach!” from ‘Radass.’ But on the album, its lighter tone makes for a break from the heavy nature of the first two tracks. It also allows for the band to show that their branching out leads in both directions. This is further emphasized on the final track, “No We’re Not Actually,” a five minute slow burner.

“Pretty Good” lives up to it’s title. For a transition work, it is successful. But Dads only have two albums under their belt – their decent “Brush Your Teeth Again ;)” and the utterly perfect ‘Radass,’ and it is kind of a shame to see them leaving the genre so soon. I was hoping for one or two more of their lo-fi, emo pleasures before they branched out. Ultimately, it’s their decision, and they can’t be blamed for wanting to escape from the ‘twinkly’ emo before they’re sucked in and unfairly lumped in with worse bands. Let’s hope they can master these transitions as well as they can emo. For what it’s worth, I saw Dads play in Amityville, New York, and for two guys with limited time and a bad venue, they were phenomenal.

If you like this, try: “Where Were You While We Were Getting High?” by One Hundred Year Ocean, an emo EP by a band comprised of some members of recent Dads tourmates The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die. I have also reviewed The World Is’ recent debut, as well as the debut from Pity Sex, who were also on the bill. I’m a fan of Topshelf Records and their offshoots.

-By Andrew McNally

Pity Sex – “Feast of Love”

(Photo Credit: Brooklyn Vegan)

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “Wind Up,” “Fold”

“Feast of Love” is the full-length debut for the hyped lo-fi band. The quartet plays a shoegaze-inspired band of emo. The album is equal parts alt-pop, emo and traditional shoegaze walls of sound. Sonically, despite the creative blending of genres, the album could use for some expansion. It is only twenty-seven minutes long but it feels a little tiring. Part of it is the shoegaze itself, it as a genre can often tire and frustrate the listener in the best possible ways. But part of it is a lack of individuality amongst the songs. The album feels like one drawn-out idea, and that’s generally what an individual shoegaze song is to start with, so a full album of similar ideas gets really bogged down. Still, it is a creative blending of genres and is it at times challenging and staggeringly original.

The lyrics are often tough to decipher, which is pretty characteristic of shoegaze (Godspeed You! Black Emperor did away with them entirely). This recent revival of lo-fi emo groups is often accompanied by poetic lyrics that are almost too easy to relate to, that result in heart-wrenching songs. Pity Sex is no different, with some great, poetic lyricism happening. Unfortunately, some of it is buried under walls of guitar.

“Feast of Love” has its faults, but it shows promise as a debut. It is tedious but creative, and is definitely worth a listen for people intrigued by the lo-fi emo revival and shoegaze. Pity Sex is currently on tour with two of the best young bands in America today, Dads and The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die.

If you like this, try: The aforementioned bands, or check out the work done by the bands Teen Suicide and Julia Brown for something wickedly lo-fi.

-By Andrew McNally

 

Veenstra – “Six Months of Death”

Photo Credit: Bandcamp.com

Photo Credit: Bandcamp.com

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “A Bear/A Fire/A Cave,” “Stone Burial”

Francois Veenstra, a solo musician from Brazil, is in the midst of an existentially lo-fi trilogy. His second album, “Six Months of Death,” was recorded like his debut, in an ultimate lo-fi setting: a bedroom, alone, with a handheld recorder. The album’s title sets the existential tone and states that the album is going to be no less introspective than his previous effort, “Journey to the Sea”. The first album in the series saw a protagonist following a river to the sea. “Six Months of Death” follows this protagonist as he finds the sea and begins to wander aimlessly, realizing the pointlessness of his previous adventure.

Musically, the protagonist’s existential pains are felt through winding, quiet music, all recorded by Veenstra. The songs are more like movements, building up or winding down at unexpected points. The transitions between songs feel more like thought breaks than song breaks – which is good, as it implies that the album works well as a whole. His vocals are tough to decipher, but they only show up sometimes, as the whole entity of the album seems to encompass this character and his travels. The album is experimental lo-fi alternative stuff, often quiet but getting the point across. Veenstra is a pretty decent musician, commandeering drums and bass just when the muted guitar begins to get a little slow. It is certainly quiet and toned-down, so lo-fi fans take notice. I’m curious what will happen to the protagonist next.

Veenstra’s albums can be found on Bandcamp, and he runs the blog Beings Being.

If you like this, try: “Whenever, If Ever” by The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, the previous review before this one.

-By Andrew McNally