Bon Iver – “22, A Million”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)Grade: B-

You might be reading articles about people in media and come across the concept of an artist making something “for themselves.” I think it’s a great idea – as a singer/director/painter/composer/what have you, someone is fed up with reviews, praise and criticism that they make a piece of art that they know they’ll enjoy. We’ve seen it in music – look at Bob Dylan’s recent output. He’s been doing it for practically his whole career, it’s just that people latched on to most of it. We saw it in film version earlier this year, when my favorite filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen put out a movie called “Hail, Caesar” that was so into their own irrelevant personal politics that it was borderline unwatchable to anyone who didn’t share their name(s). This is what Justin Vernon’s new album sounds like. Vernon, the frontman and ship-commander of Bon Iver, has never been shy to air his grievances on tape. It’s just here, he does it in a way that alters between being heartbreakingly original and just painfully pretentious.

Vernon is a man who has always dipped his feet into many different pools. It would be easy to say that his big break came when Bon Iver picked up two huge Grammys in 2012 – Best Alternative Album, beating Radiohead and Death Cab For Cutie, and Best New Artist, beating – wait for this – The Band Perry, J. Cole, Skrillex, and Nicki Minaj. But in that same year, Justin Vernon was featured on an album, maybe you know it, Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Although he swept up the Grammy’s in his own indie-folk persona, he snuck in a bunch of nominations via Kanye, a fan who invited him in the studio. I would argue that “Monster,” in which Vernon is 1/5 of musicians present, is one of this century’s best hip-hop songs, and it introduced a whole different audience to his music.

I mention all of this not to be condescending or anything; I mention it because it has become clear that a possibly unintentional association to the hip-hop community has definitely changed Vernon’s music. The first two Bon Iver albums – which came out in 2008 and 2011, respectively, capitalized on the indie-folk movement that was big at the time. They’re gems, throughout. I’ll admit that I’ve never felt the connection to them that a lot of people have, but they are gems. Four years later, after a self-imposed hiatus, Vernon’s Bon Iver still reflects the music movements of today. But it doesn’t capture the current eclectic zeitgeist as well. In an age where A$ap Rocky records with Florence Welch, David Bowie writes an album inspired by Kendrick Lamar, and Bruce Springsteen praises Kanye, there is an insane amount of cross-blending going on.

At times, Bon Iver’s album hits emotional highs where his new concoction of hip-hop induced freakfolk strikes an emotional cord that somehow has not been hit yet. Opening track “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” is a brutally honest way to open an album, with Vernon seemingly pondering his own existence, singing “It might be over soon.” The song falls to a saxophone bit that plays over a particularly grating chant. One of the album’s best tracks is “33”GOD”,” which ironically works because of its clarity. The song is the clearest song on the album – the song that sounds the most like traditional Bon Iver. In a weird way, it’s refreshing.

Vernon’s lyrics throughout the album are his strongest suit. His words are emotionally distant and discontent – the words of a man who never planned on being famous and showing up on Kanye albums. The main problem is, sometimes those lyrics are simply indecipherable. Parts of this album beg the question often posed to bands like Lightning Bolt or Deafheaven – does renegading your lyrics behind a curtain of indecipherability render them pointless?

The album, when not highlighting a poignant, dissonant emotional feel, gives into its worst indulgences. Vernon has recorded with and under a number of bands and aliases, so it’s tough not to wonder why he felt the Bon Iver moniker was the right one for this album. It’s wildly different, to a point where it feels like Vernon flaunting his own split in the biggest avenue he can find, and that avenue just happens to be Bon Iver. The album has great tracks – but ones like the utterly dull “29 #Stafford APTS” or the annoyingly grating, a capella “715 – CRΣΣKS” make you wonder why this album has to exist in the first place. There’s little middle ground here – there’s either tracks that capture beauty amidst roughness, or just the roughness. On both go-arounds I made of this album, I had to restart “8 (circle)” because both times I completely forgot I was listening to music. Vernon retreats into himself on this album – and when he has an emotional center to bounce off, then he’s written some of the best songs of his career. But at other times, he’s become so self-indulgent that it doesn’t even feel like there should be another listener besides him.

The song titles don’t help his case. Don’t trust every review that praises the mystical song titles – sure, each one has a number. Do we know what it means? Not really. Does it seem to matter? Not really. I don’t know how many people were truly excited to see the torch that Devendra Banhart abandoned be picked up, but this isn’t really the way to do it. Calling a song something like “____45_____” doesn’t intrinsically add anything of value, it just makes it look different. And in this case, that different is goofy, not inspirational. Vernon treats this album like he is the grandmaster of freakfolk, but he isn’t, not by decades. Maybe he was influenced by Kanye, maybe these tracks came out of his own frutration and I’m just not accepting them correctly. But “22, A Million” just doesn’t feel like the revolutionary piece of art that the band so seems to think it is. It definitely takes multiple listens, and it is never what you expect. At times, it is nothing but sheer greatness. But it is also such a mess of pretentious experimental nonsense that it never answers the basic question of why it needs to exist in the first place. Some people will love it; some really won’t. Maybe Justin Vernon made this album for himself, or maybe he made it for those fans. Either way, “22, A Million” never rises above being a reminder of the better freak-folk acts of the past.

-By Andrew McNally

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.”

Little Tyrant – “Stop Crying/Dying (A Collection of Platonic Love Songs)”

Grade: B+

Key Track: “Everyone who Wants to Kiss me is on the Internet”

Little Tyrant, pseudonym of singer Matt Diamond, starts off their short album with the proclamation: “I had lived through a majority of my life thinking I was sad because I was alone, but then I realized that it was the opposite, I was lonely because I was sad.” Diamond, the force behind folk act Little Tyrant, makes a mission statement in the opening number “Hi (Corny Intro).” They’re setting the rest of the album up as a set of tunes for the trans community, that’s a little more ambient and a little less harsh than other singers out there.

To call this album short is to sell itself a little – at eight tracks, it sits at 10:19. But the very brief runtime lets Diamond sit on some of the music’s more important elements. After the Paul Baribeau-like blast of “Wastin’ Away,” the feedback and slowed rhythms of “Light” seem to extend longer than they actually do, in a way that plays with the listener. The album’s longest song is 2:08, the closer “Everyone who Wants to Kiss me is on the Internet,” and it serves as what is a lengthy closer, relative to the seven songs prior.

Diamond’s music is more ambient than most folksy-singer-songwriters. “Sooner” and “Light” experiment a little more in an ambient setting, both musically and vocally. Their placement towards the end of the album help ease the listener into the ambiance, slowly moving from folk blasts into it.

Diamond has stayed away from lyrics that are too harsh. Their lyrics instead reflect the basics of growing up transgender. On “Mediocre Bedding,” they sing “I sat at the bar and smoked some cigars because that’s what growing up is.” The lyrics throughout reflect Diamond seemingly calling on others to try to make the most of their positions. “Wastin’ Away” features no other lyrics other than “You’re wastin’ away,” and they’re delivered in a frontal but apologetic, ‘it’s time we addressed this’ type of way.

After a couple of listens, its apparent that “Stop Crying” packs a number of punches in only 11 minutes. It sets up an environment in a folk world, and moves into ambient, all while delivering introspective but leading lyrics roped together for a specific community. It’s one of the more interesting releases to come out of the dwelling transgender folk scene, an album created as much for others as it is for Diamond.

The album is available for download/streaming here.

If you like this, try: Porch Cat’s split with JFKFC.

MisterWives – “Our Own House”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Reflections,” “Coffins,” “No Need For Dreaming”

Let’s get this out of the way: there’s nothing inherently special about MisterWives. They’re not one of the more unique indie bands you’re going to hear. But, it’s their sweetness and earnest desire to just make music and bank off each other that makes them great. They’ve only existed for a short while, but on their full-length debut, they sound like a full-fledged band that’s had years of practice. The band’s pretty, vocal-heavy folk-indie is strong at every point.

I was lucky enough to catch MisterWives live at what had to have been one of their earliest shows. They were opening for another great band called Pyyramids in Manhattan, and I remember seeing enough of them to think that they seemed like a down-to-Earth, groovy group that was playing what they wanted to. On “Our Own House,” they’ve expanded their sound, but they haven’t lost much of the fun qualities that they had in that tiny Manhattan bar.

Three of the first five songs on this album have horns. Openers “Our Own House” and “Not Your Way,” and fifth track “Best I Can Do.” It’s worth noting, because the band has an interesting strategy, where they come out with the bang of some extra musicians, before settling into who they are themselves. They bust out with a groove, with a funky grip that hooks you in for a few tracks before you things have calmed and you’re listening to just a few people.

The best tracks on the album are the ones where MisterWives work as a collective – some songs are too heavy on vocals, but some are collective efforts. Two of the album’s better songs, “No Need For Dreaming,” and “Imagination Infatuation,” are collaborative efforts. “Hurricane” is even more guitar-heavy. But even on the tracks on that aren’t as cohesive, Mandy Lee Duffy’s vocals are strong throughout. She’s the anchor of the band; she formed it, she leads it, and her sweet but booming voice propels the band forward. The band’s best song, “Reflections,” is centered almost entirely around her vocals.

“Reflections” is one of five songs on the album that already existed, on last year’s “Reflections” EP. But it’s okay, because they’re worked into the twining of the album organically. They’re just reprints of the older versions, but they fit fine within the album’s frame.

On first listen, MisterWives might seem like another folksy-indie throwaway band, but there’s a lot of substance to their music. It’s grasping, and catchy, and a ton of fun. There isn’t a dull moment on their debut. What MisterWives really is, is five talented musicians sitting in a studio, simply creating whatever they want. And as far as the (pseudo-)indie-folk genre goes, MisterWives are already one of the better bands in the game.

if you like this, try: Company of Thieves. Genevieve Schatz’s voice was sweet but dominant, like Duffy’s, and the band also had a collaborative indie sound. “Oscar Wilde” is one of my permanent favorite songs.

-Andrew McNally

Human Kitten – “y tywysog bach”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Wearing Cologne Alone” “Defend Top Bunk”

It was just a few months ago that Human Kitten, aka folk-punk singer-songwriter Elijah Llinas, released “Manic Pixie Dream Boy,” and there’s already another release, equally filled with quick tracks on activism, illness and gender confusion. The songs vary more in tone, some angry, some retrospective, some self-deprecating. As always, it’s just Llinas and a guitar, quietly baring their souls to whomever’s listening.

Llinas has always been a lyrically-heavy singer, and “y tywysog bach” comes out of the gate with a number of personal and poetic tracks. Particularly self-deprecating second track “I’m Trash” sees Llinas declaring “Fuck my pain away / Until I melt into the trash compactor.” On the semi-anti-technology “Activists Are Active,” Llinas sings, “We think we’re so civilized / But we’re the same as the people living in 1655.” There are more tracks on the struggles of gender identification, like on the excellent “Sex: Male, Gender: Whatever.” And on “Defend Top Bunk,” “My songs are getting less political by the word.” Llinas’ personality comes through the lyrics, as it always does, but it feels like we’re getting a few broader aspects of it this time around. “Defend Top Bunk” is not a political song, but a song about becoming less political. Human Kitten’s lyrics are often direct, without sacrificing poetry, and on this album they occasionally aim for the gut (although whether it’s yours or Llinas’ gut isn’t clear).

Although Llinas still embodies a singer-songwriter, as a singular person with an acoustic guitar, the songwriting is a little different on this album. The songs themselves are a little more direct, less guitar flourishes and rhythms, grounded even further on the themes and lyrics. But on top of that, there’s also a three-part song, taking up tracks 8-10. “Shame,” “Forgiveness,” and “Redemption” are typically cynical and reflective, but it’s interesting to see Llinas take a different approach to the structures than usual.

Human Kitten is basically an embodiment of folk-punk; Llinas plays fast and acoustic music solo, with some specific, personal and occasionally discomforting lyrics. “y tywysog bach” is another album where Llinas opens up about deep issues that might not be as easy to talk about – as well as some forays into politics and problem people. And since it’s similar to the past releases, it’s a strong album. Llinas isn’t playing to a wide audience, rather providing a voice for people who can listen and relate; people who might have the same issues but haven’t been able to vocalize them. Most good folk-punk is like that, and Human Kitten is no different.

The album is out today and is available at the Human Kitten bandcamp page.

-By Andrew McNally

The Front Bottoms – “Rose”

 

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “12 Feet Deep” “Jim Bogart”

Leave it to a band like the Front Bottoms to put a reviewer in a tough spot on whether to call these songs “new” or not. Because these songs are freshly recorded. But they certainly aren’t new. The first five tracks that make up “Rose” – “Flying Model Rockets,” “Lipstick Covered Magnet,” “12 Feet Deep,” “Jim Bogart,” and “Be Nice to Me” – are re-recordings of older songs, with “Awkward Conversations” the only freshly recorded one. The Front Bottoms released three albums before their perfect 2011 ‘debut’ self-titled, “Brothers Can’t Be Friends,” “I Hate My Friends” and “My Grandma vs. Pneumonia,” respectively. But all three are only available in the deepest corners of the internet, so buried that even some of their more adamant friends aren’t even aware of them. They’ve played these songs live, though, and they’ve become staples, so they’re getting a proper release in the first of a set of EP’s named after the duo’s grandmothers.

The song with the most remarkable difference is “12 Feet Deep,” always one of my personal favorite Front Bottoms songs. “Because you are water twelve feet deep / and I am boots made of concrete” proved in c. 2010 to be an emotionally impacting line, reflecting a relationship that isn’t healthy but still committed. But in 2014, a more steady drumline and more inspired vocals transform it into a more optimistic and hopeful relationship, without altering any of the words. All throughout the EP, there’s lyrics about school and parents, which still sound fresh in Brian Sella’s non-aging voice. The poetry of early Front Bottoms is more natural; less forced than some of the corny couplets on last year’s “Talon of the Hawk.”

Musically, the band has it more together now than they did then. That’s another added bonus of re-recording – the only real fault of their early albums is some messy music, when they were still learning what they were doing. It’s more refined on “Rose,” though still a little off the rails, of course. “Jim Bogart” ditches the inside-a-box production, and adds trumpet and and a slick little keyboard rhythm to build up to the drum entrance. In one way, the songs feel stripped down on this EP – more confined and controlled, sometimes fewer instruments, and with a better production. But in another way, they feel even more expanded and in your face than they did before – the benefit of a band that’s since settled into a signature sound.

It was a smart idea for the band to release these older songs, revamped. Relative fame, a constant touring schedule (and a namedrop alongside the National and Daft Punk in this NYT article) have had the unfortunate drawback of their youthful, innocently downtrodden lyrics sounding less believable. A decidedly terrible full-length didn’t help that, either. So although the band is reaching a wider and wider audience, their music is sounding less personable and less impacting. These six songs show how youthful and energetic the Front Bottoms really are, and by re-recording them, they’ve proven that they haven’t really changed at all. It’s sad, it’s fun, it’s poetic and easy to relate to, so it’s all you’ve come to expect from them. The only criticism? It doesn’t include “The Cops.” And that’s really a personal criticism. Maybe on a future EP.

-By Andrew McNally

The Boston Boys – “Idea of Love”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Between You and Me” “Become Like One”

The Boston Boys, a folk-heavy roots band now decidedly living in Brooklyn, have always relied on their diverse sound as their strongest quality. I wrote about “Keep You Satisfied,” their last EP, that the guys were able blend folk, rock, country and americana elements into a sound that’s both predictably shiny and refreshingly original. “Idea of Love,” their third EP, keeps this blend just as strong.

The opening song, the aptly titled “The Beginning,” sets the mood for the EP. The band doesn’t start with a bang, instead opening with a slow and string-heavy track that’s more psychedelic than it is folk. It’s the EP’s most interesting song and, although it ultimately doesn’t really resemble the five songs that follow it, it does set the tone the band is looking for – there’s going to be a lot of little surprises. From there they jump into “Between You and Me,” a much more traditional country-folk song. It’s rhythmic, has a medium tempo and some pleasant vocal harmonies. It’s more what you’d expect from a band like the Boston Boys; it sounds conventional, but it doesn’t fit under the monikers of ‘folk’ or ‘country,’ instead landing in their own little niche in between.

“Times Like These” is more stripped-down, largely just vocals and guitar, a decidedly folksy move. And as soon as the mood calms for it, the more fun and drum-heavy “Become Like One” starts. The transition between these two songs works well, as they show the band at their calmest and highest points, respectively. “Become Like One” really is a fun track, breaking out of folk to incorporate some standard rock elements (that stay true through the next song, as well). Final track “You Don’t Need Me” is a slow, folk-rock type ballad, a solemn way to end the EP.

As with “Keep You Satisfied,” the band’s diversity in the music makes for a fun listen. The lyrics might sometimes get drowned out because of it, but their constant mixing of genres can make for a unique listen, and helps each song on the EP separate itself from the others. The band has a distinctly American sound, like their music should be played on a front porch in a small town on a warm summer day. They take the best parts of American genres – folk, country, bluegrass and americana – add a little rock from time to time, and produce a sound that’s both wholly original and lovingly American. It’s surely no surprise that the Boston Boys are named after an American city, because their music serves to optimistically celebrate a whole range of American heritages.

The EP is officially released on Tuesday, May 20th.

-By Andrew McNally