White Lung – “Paradise”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Below,” “Kiss Me When I Bleed”

There’s two meanings to the word “raw.” On White Lung’s previous album, “Deep Fantasy,” they explored a hardcore sound that roared ferociously, even for hardcore punk, ripping through 10 songs in 22 minutes. Their new album smoothes things out a bit (although not much, it’s 10 songs through 28 minutes). There is a lot more emotional rawness on the album – the band is focused less on speed and volume and more on wearing themselves thin on tape.

White Lung are following in a trend set by previous releases by Perfect Pussy and Savages, in which very loud and angry bands are not shying away from their sudden success and are instead using their new standpoints in their music. Tellingly, Meredith Graves and Jhenny Beth opened their arms to love. Mish Barber-Way? Serial killers. And trailers. But also love. In between albums, she wed, and a post-wedding blissfulness permeates the album. At times, unfortunately, the band sounds like they’re pushing the volume only because they’re White Lung and that’s what is expected. Most of the time, however, this theme of emotional and physical rawness comes across effectively.

“Deep Fantasy” is one of my favorite albums – in the past two years I’ve spun it more than almost any other album. But if there’s any criticism I could level at it, it’s that it feels a little too polished at times. Surprising, given Kenneth William’s utterly shrieking guitar. The band operates at 11 and sound like they’re about to go off the rails at all moments. But still, they could use for a little more emotion in their music. It comes through here. On “Demented,” William trades in his wailing guitar for a straight-forward, pounding and unexpected one-chord riff. Anne-Marie Vassiliou sounds immediately more forceful on the drums, on opener “Dead Weight,” and one multiple songs throughout. And Mish Barber-Way strains herself on nearly every song. I found their first single, “Hungry,” underwhelming, but man her voice propels the song. She brings carnage to “Kiss Me When I Bleed” and adds tension to ballad “Below.” She dominates the album in the way that she dominated “In Your Home,” the closer to “Deep Fantasy.”

Lyrically, too, this album has a certain rawness to it that doesn’t jibe with the rawness of “Deep Fantasy.” One of that album’s best songs, “I Believe You,” was an extremely direct message to rape culture. That directness exists here, too, but instead of a punishing rawness, it’s an emotional one. Barber-Way investigates her fears and wonders about marrying a Southern man: “I will give birth in a trailer / Huffing the gas in the air / Baby is born in molasses / Like I would even care” she sings on “Kiss Me When I Bleed.” On “I Beg You,” “This is the death of me / I need a fantasy.” Between the rapid drumming, relentless guitar exploration and strained vocals, White Lung push themselves to a maximum that they’ve never explored. It doesn’t always pay off, some tracks like “Narcoleptic” and “Hungry” suffer from a tempo that’s too fast to be slow and too slow to be White Lung. Exploring their space might not always be their thing. Then again, they strip everything away and let sheer tension run “Below.” This is a personal and bleeding album, one that addresses the successes and failures of being a touring band, sudden notoriety, and life in general. It isn’t necessarily hardcore punk, but then again, White Lung never truly adapted the title. They never adapted any title. And it’s not like this album isn’t gonna rip your face off most of the time anyways. It’s raw, it’s passionate, it’s emotional, it’s loud, it’s destructive and most importantly, it’s White Lung.

-By Andrew McNally

Advertisements

FIDLAR – “Too”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “40oz. on Repeat” “Overdose”

With track titles like “Punks,” “Overdose,” and “Bad Habits,” it might seem like “Too” is more of the same from FIDLAR. Their first album, mind you, had “Blackout Stout,” “Wake Bake Skate” and “Cocaine.” It might feel like there’s a gambit in song titles that FIDLAR is quickly running through. But, their sophomore album is an album that some people, myself included, didn’t anticipate coming so soon – the conflicting, adult album. Most punk bands grow up sometime – Rancid’s “Life Won’t Wait,” Dads’ “I’ll Be the Tornado.” FIDLAR’s maturity is a very reluctant one – some tracks on “Too” feel like holdovers from still-recent partying years. But as the guys grow up, they’re begrudgingly accepting a more sober life.

One of the best qualities of FIDLAR’s debut album, a personal favorite of mine, was an underlying, barely visible sense of angst. It only came out in certain songs, when the guys were sober enough to see that there were far too many problems in the world. Through the more youthful and the more adult songs on “Too,” the unifying sense is still the slight angst. This time, it’s on a more personal level, as “Too” is heavy on self-reflection. “I don’t know why it’s so difficult for me to talk to someone I don’t know,” is sung on “40oz. on Repeat.” “One week sober / and I’m still hungover,” from closer “Bad Habits.” “FIDLAR” was a humorously self-deprecating album, but “Too” ditches the humor. Take the lyrics from “Bad Habits,” set them in an entirely different musical context, and they could fit nicely on an Alice in Chains album.

But they’re still at a crossroads, because there’s still party tracks. “Sober,” despite the title, is almost inarguably the strangest song in the band’s catalog, with the opening third of the song done almost in spoken word (think the beginning of “The Sweater Song”* but with the vocal melody of “Baby Got Back”). And the album’s penultimate track, “Bad Medicine,” is a >3 minute song that feels like one last punk blast, for old time’s sake, the inverse of Renton taking one last injection in Trainspotting.

As with their debut album, the band has an innate and unexpected ability to eschew any one sub-genre of music. The downside is that it leaves FIDLAR without a distinct sound, something important in punk. But the upside is that each song is going to sound distinct. “Punks,” originally (or perhaps erroneously) titled “The Punks Are Finally Taking Acid,” is a heavy song, centered on a guitar riff akin to a quickened “She’s So Heavy,” with pained, screamed vocals. But follow-up “West Coast” is the kind of bouncy sing-along you more expect from the band. It goes back and forth, often reflective of the lyrics, and it adds a cohesiveness to the album. The lyrics are well-rounded, so the music should be too.

“Too” does ask one question that it does not answer – who should FIDLAR’s audience be, now? Their first album was able to answer that question very, very easily – partying punks and skaters. It’s practically a Ten Commandments for SoCal late teens who are gradually becoming less aware of Mat Hoffman. But their second album was made more for themselves, and that’s a dangerous line to cross. Just because we’re being let on on FIDLAR’s internal struggles doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something we want to see. I’m genuinely not sure who the intended audience is for this record, as the partyers generally aren’t going to warm up to the sobering songs as much. There’s a mixed audience for the album, and it’s going to be divisive among fans. Still, there’s enough going on that it stands as a solid, and different sophomore release. I’m just worried about what the band is going to have to go through for the next album.

* – I saw FIDLAR a couple months ago in Boston and they covered “the Sweater Song,” replacing most of the verses with the word “meow” repeated over and over again. Inspiration? Probably.

If you like this, try: Perfect Pussy’s “Say Yes to Love,” another album where a punk band suddenly tightened up, but not without a total maturity.

Sorry Guys, Women Won Music (Again) in 2014

Man, us men really spent the year treading water. As 2014 comes to a (well-deserved) close, and we discuss the best and worst in music, one thing in evident – women really lead the way. Women released better songs, better albums and had more progressive things to say than men did. So although men can boast, dick around and talk big, it was women that paved every path this year. Aloe Blacc was the man? Well Beyonce was Flawless. From Laura Jane Grace to Ariel Pink, Wiz Khalifa to Mish Way, both men and women helped women become the beacons of music in 2014.

2013 was an exceptional year for women in music, too. I almost wrote this article last year, but I was then too devoted to keeping this blog strictly reviews. It’s amazing to think it was only last year that unknown teenager Lorde nearly overtook Robin Thicke for biggest song of the year. But where 2013 was all about new acts establishing themselves in new niches of music (like one Crutchfield sister in Swearin’ and the other in Waxahatchee, both redefining punk), 2014 was all about the big names taking sides and taking stances.

2014 began on December 13th of last year, when “Beyonce” dropped unexpectedly. Not even the album’s guest stars knew there was an album coming out. Only Beyonce could have a release that huge, that unannounced and that coherent. It would go on to champion a year full of feminism and sexuality where women dominated, with only minimal exceptions.

Women Dominated Albums

“Beyonce” may have been the year’s best album (if you count it), but it was one of just many great albums from women. Charli XCX and Nicki Minaj followed in Beyonce’s path and released December albums – a month usually reserved for contractual-obligation Christmas albums. Tinashe and FKA twigs released two of the year’s best debuts, two R&B albums that establish each singer’s other-worldly confidence. And speaking of other-worldly confidence, the year’s best album unabashedly went to St. Vincent. Annie Clark’s guitar-drenched songs of surveillance and snakes were nothing else we heard all year, in both scope and confidence.

Taylor Swift did something usually disastrous for musicians and switched genres (Remember “Forever“?). But she went passive, attacking armchair critics on “Shake it Off,” not coincidentally one of the year’s best/biggest songs. “1989” was a big mess of a pop album that convinced many people (myself) that there really is more there than angry break-up songs.

Another one of the year’s best albums came from Lana Del Ray, who listened to criticisms and improved her music in every way. “Ultraviolence” was dark, brooding and seductive – a 60’s minimalist pop work that’s ready to defend itself from Youtube comments. With songs like “Fucked My Way to the Top,” Lana owned her identity, to the chagrin of many. In comparison, Sam Smith provided one of the year’s best songs – “Stay With Me” – but struggled to find his own musical identity, with a lackluster debut and less of a personality than his minimalist pop peers.

And this brings us back to last year’s minimalist dear, Lorde. Lorde didn’t release any music in 2014 save one song, “Yellow Flicker Beat.” But the song came from the soundtrack to the recent Hunger Games movie, a soundtrack she was assigned to curate. That, itself, is a huge deal for anyone – especially someone still in their teenage years. And, she chose people of a like mind – CHVRCHES, Tove Lo, Tinashe, HAIM, Bat For Lashes, Charli XCX and Grace Jones (!!!) all make appearances.

Women Dominated Songs

“I got one more problem with you, girl”

“I go on too many dates / at least that’s what people say”

“Fuck the skinny bitches in the motherfucking club”

Women seemed to rule the radio this year, too. The year’s best songs and most provocative lyrics belonged to women. Let’s look at these three examples – Ariana Grande dominated the charts this year, with no bigger song than “Problem,” with Iggy Azalea. It was a horn-blasting, bombastic pop song influenced by DJ Mustard’s production but without any unnecessary DJ attachment. Taylor Swift tossed critics askew in a side of her we’ve never seen before, and Nicki Minaj rallied against pro-look pro-anti-feminists. “Anaconda” was one of the year’s best songs – she took a comedically remembered hit from ’92 about the male gaze and repurposed it into a song about female body positivity. What’s better than that?

Elsewhere, there was the female talent showcase of Jessie J/Grande/Minaj on the excellent “Bang Bang,” a song that’s just about bangin,’ and it’s great. It’s just a fun, upbeat pop song that shows off some talent. Grimes’ only contribution to 2014 was “Go,” a crazy, pseudo-steampunk song that reflects your every mood when you listen to it. Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” might not be one of the year’s most revered songs, but it tied Janet Jackson for most weeks at #1, and it’s just another notch in her book.

Women Owned Feminism & Sexuality

So let’s talk about the most important woman of the year, alright? Laura Jane Grace, of Against Me! In 2012, after Against Me!’s miserably regressive “White Crosses” album, Tom Gabel announced that he was going to start living as a woman, Laura Jane Grace. Grace joined Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, among others, in a year where the transgender movement finally came to a public eye. So Against Me!’s 2014 album, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” opened a wide audience to a previously closed movement. And while the album had some weak points, tracks like “True Trans Soul Rebel,” “Unconditional Love” and “Drinking With the Jocks” illustrate Grace’s struggles with gender identity in the way of some of Against Me!’s most abrasive lyrics yet.

And while we’re on punk, two of the year’s best feminists were Mish Way and Meredith Graves. Mish Way’s band, White Lung, released one of the year’s best albums in “Deep Fantasy.” The album is heavy and real from start to finish, but it’s centered around its second best song, “I Believe You,” a song that’s written from the POV of a surprisingly understanding friend of someone who’s admitting they’ve been sexually assaulted. The song is both musically and lyrically the heaviest thing they’ve done, and it’s one of the year’s most important minute and 42 seconds.

Meredith Graves, of Perfect Pussy, had a busy year. Perfect Pussy’s debut, “Say Yes to Love,” was secretly modeled off the line, “Why do we say yes to love?” The album has a feminist tone throughout, with Graves frequently taking on the established male punk precedent (if you can hear the vocals). Punk music needs a reason to be energetic; Graves and co. don’t hold back about that reason.

Outside of the band, Graves published essays on being a woman in the music industry, comparing Andrew W.K. to Lana Del Ray, and on male pattern violence after Mark Kozelek made an unnecessary, public feud with the War on Drugs.

On the sexuality side, it’s easy to say that sexuality in music as all about confidence – whether it’s outward, like Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love,”  Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” – or sultry and subversive – FKA twigs “Video Girl,” Tinashe’s “2 On,” this year was full of strong, confident women, and it’s been a joy of a ride. Keep it up, 2015.

There Are Always Exceptions

Of course there’s exceptions. With Azealea Banks finally getting to release her excellent debut, “Broke With Expensive Taste,” came some harassing, homophobic Twitter rants that diminished credibility. (I won’t link to them – know that they’re out there).

She also started an ongoing feud with 2014’s most problematic female, Iggy Azalea. For those of you reading this, by now you’re surely at least familiar with the name – she had a number of huge hits in the summer – “Problem,” with Ariana Grande, “No Mediocre,” with T.I., and her own songs “Fancy” with Charli XCX and “Black Widow” with Rita Ora. I have to admit, from a music standpoint, I think they’re all great songs. But I wish I didn’t know anything about her when I listen to them. Azalea is Australian by birth, British by upbringing, and whiter than a jar of Hellmann’s. But she raps in a fake, black Southern accent (see: Atlanta) to mimic those who “influence” her. She’s trying way too damn hard and yes, it’s really racist. And yes, she has dropped the N-word.

Lana Del Ray also sparked some controversy by saying she would rather talk about space travel than feminism. The degree to which it’s just to fit in with her old-money, Gatsby-befriending persona is debatable, but it’s something that was said and can’t be forgotten.

Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus also made trouble with some serious, continuous cultural appropriation, done for their own “artistic benefits.” Both artists have remained silent when asked by fans to stand up for actual black issues like Ferguson.

But Here’s What Men Did This Year

Men accomplished little this year, in terms of music (and most other things). As always – exceptions. Pharrell’s “G I R L” album was a great, feminist work (and acted as an unintentional apology for “Blurred Lines”). Perfume Genius’ song “Queen” was one of the most honest, heartbreakingly rattling songs of the year. Patrick Carney, of the Black Keys, had a year spent on the offensive where he called out people like Jack White for their actions. And, artists like John Legend and J. Cole led the movement to recognize the need to acknowledge Ferguson, with ?uestlove adding that we need more Bob Dylans and Rage Against the Machines – artists with political motivations. But for every Run the Jewels, there’s at least one Eminem, so let’s look at men being men:

Eminem. Eminem released a song where he threatens to punch Lana Del Ray. Why? To what purpose? Eminem is 42 years old, and his fight for relevance includes threatening the most passive, pacifistic singer you can think of? That’s not intimidating. If Eminem wanted to stay popular, he’d retire and let his record speak for itself. Or, he could actually focus on the quality of his music, since he hasn’t had a good song since “Lose Yourself” (arms spaghetti) and his 2014 contribution was a Shady greatest hits compilation no one asked for.

Mark Kozelek. Sun Kil Moon’s 2014 album “Benji” was remarkable, but the 47 year old singer is also fighting a losing battle with aging, as he started a one-sided, unnecessary feud with the War on Drugs, a band that has looked up to him, and has taken no part in this imaginary feud. It all culminated with the admittedly silly and meta but still homophobic single, “The War on Drugs Can Suck My Cock.” The fact that these attacks are unresponded to amounts to nothing more than Kozelek trying to prove his manliness and yelling at a crowd that isn’t listening.

Ariel Pink. Human clickbait Ariel Pink’s 2014 album, “pom pom” made a lot of year-end lists. I didn’t listen to it. Ariel Pink called out Grimes, for some reason, calling her “stupid and retarded,” insults I never realized people used after the age of 12. Pink said he was contacted by Madonna to record for her new album only to say she’s been on a big downward spiral. Madonna’s publicist said he was lying, that she had never heard of him. Downward spiral? Meet Ariel Pink.

Robin Thicke. Thicke! Thicke was quiet in 2014, but he wasn’t trying to be. Black metal bands be damned, the creepiest album of 2014 went to “Paula,” Thicke’s in-depth, hyper-specific public apology to his ex-wife. First week sales counts: USA – 24,000. UK – 530. Australia – 158. 158 copies in Australia didn’t crack the Top 200.

Phil Rudd. For a band that sings constantly about manly stuff like rocking and violence, AC/DC’s first controversy didn’t come until this year, when drummer Phil Rudd was arrested for trying to hire a hitman to kill his wife. The band was as shocked as it’s fans, where was this rock and roll stuff in 1977?

Future killed the good fortune he’d set up with one of the best albums of the year, “Honest,” by admitting he cheated on Ciara and by guesting on the atrocious “Pussy Overrated” with Wiz Khalifa. Jack White did interviews where he groomed his image by verbally attacking respected artists like Adele, the Black Keys, and even Meg. Chris Brown got arrested a few more times, and had the gall to release a song about disloyal girlfriends. I could keep going on about men in music, but these are the biggest examples. Most of the best music of the year was done by women, and women made the bigger stories. They’ve had to, because to be anything less than extraordinary is going to get them shelved under male musicians. Let’s keep this going. 2015 should be the return of Adele, and Beyonce might even give us another album. We’re starting on the right foot.

-By Andrew McNally. Inevitable responses can be directed to amcnal817@gmail.com. Article can be reprinted or referenced, with citation. Feel free to remove links if ya do.

White Lung – “Deep Fantasy”

Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Drown With the Monster” “I Believe You”

In a world where punk is an ever-increasing and subjective term, we’re seeing more and more bands stretch the limits of the genre – the Waxahatachees and Andrew Jackson Jihads take a more acoustic-driven approach, and the Menzingers and the Modern Baseballs opt for deft poetry instead of angst. So it’s almost surprising to hear a band like White Lung, a well-oiled machine of anger and energy. They have a ferocity normally reserved for hardcore, and indeed, their music tends to hover towards hardcore and thrash metal, but it stays distinctly punk. Their excellent third album, 10 songs and 22 minutes, is a sweaty and kinetic burst that never once lets up.

White Lung aren’t changing anything on “Deep Fantasy.” This album isn’t an increase in power – they’ve always been as intense as they are here. But it’s still impressive. All ten songs on “Deep Fantasy” are at a non-stop, ferocious volume, as if they don’t know anything except that. White Lung have the ability to make a song that’s 2:26 feel long. The music is no frills – no drum fills, no theatrics, no breakdowns, no intros, no outros. Just volume. And yet, it doesn’t quite align with punk or metal. If they were to rely more on chords – which I’m glad they don’t – they’d veer into thrash metal. But the verses are usually marked by guitarist Kenneth William’s shearing, high-pitched rhythms, adding a shrieking element that isn’t metal at all.

Mish Way’s vocals dominate the album. She inverts some typical vocal structures by letting her voice fly high over the verses and taking a backseat, sometimes in a deeper pitch, during the choruses. Her voice is more stable on this time around, actually sounding intentionally conventional at most times. It creates a weird disparity – there’s clear, common vocals centered around a mass of volatile, unstable music. Her voice, at least on this record, actually resembles that of Debbie Harry’s, and the result is the album that Blondie always sounded like they wanted to experiment with, but never did.

To refer to a band, especially a punk band, as “female-fronted” in 2014 is ineffectual and stupidly ignorant, but for “Deep Fantasy,” it’s important to point out the album’s feminism. With blinding punk like this, you’d expect angry lyrics, whether personal, political, etc. And sometimes that’s the case – the repeated line “the water looks good on you” on “Drown With the Monster” speaks volumes. But some of the songs are poignant and rational. The album’s most intense track, the 1:42 blast “I Believe You,” is in response to sexual assault. Elsewhere, Way sings about other issues that society has laid on women – eating disorders, sexual fantasies and body image. To present rational and balanced lyrics in an otherwise aggressive setting brings home the importance of what Way presents – forcefully saying we need to address these issues in a safe manner.

White Lung only does one thing, and they do it extremely well. At 22 minutes, the album is a chugging engine that never gets repetitive or tired. It just keeps going, until you’re starting to break a sweat, and ending before the actual pain comes. Years ago, White Lung turned their instruments all the way up, and they haven’t adjusted them since. “Deep Fantasy” is an aural assault, and one of the best punk albums of the year. The band is a driving force in punk, and “Deep Fantasy” establishes them as a deafening group to watch out for.

If you like this try: an obvious comparison is equally feminist group Perfect Pussy, but they include effective moments of silence and feedback as major song points, that White Lung instead totally eschews. So, a better comparison might be noise-punk group So Stressed’s album “Attracted to Open Mouths.”

-By Andrew McNally

Perfect Pussy – “Say Yes to Love”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Driver” “Interference Fits”

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before,” Meredith Graves coyly sings on “Advance Upon the Real.” But there’s no stopping Perfect Pussy – there isn’t anything quite like this. In fact, it’s one of the only decipherable lines on the album. Perfect Pussy’s raw, cheap and ferocious punk energy is breathing life into music. The noise-punk band came together after Graves was asked to form a fake band to play in a scene of the 2013 film “Adult World,” and they ended up recording. They released their first EP, “I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling,” rather unceremoniously. But it was quickly picked up by major markets and by the time this debut LP came out (which wasn’t long), it was already hotly anticipated.

The first EP was four songs and roughly 13 minutes long. “Say Yes to Love” is double that – eight songs and 23 minutes. The whole album is characterized by relentless and chaotic energy and teasing intros and fade-outs. The volume is pushed to the max throughout, surrounded by reverb, power chords and lo-fi production. The chords themselves are deceivingly pop-punk, but Perfect Pussy are far too riotous to be considered it. The only song that isn’t all-out is the keyboard-prevalent closer, the ominously named “VII” (ominous because the EP’s song titles were in Roman numerals, suggesting parts V and VI exist). Even then, it’s a booming closer. The band’s intensity is thanks in part to the muffled production. It’s like the medium between Melt-Banana and Potty Mouth, recording with the production quality of Teen Suicide.

Fade-outs, reverb and tempting intros are a large part of this album. The opening song, “Driver,” waits a very teasing eleven seconds before the opening chords. “Big Stars” and “Interference Fits” have long periods of reverb at the end of the song, as if providing a quick break for the listener. And “Advance Upon the Real” has a little over three minutes of tape delay, at the end, in which some notes and chords in the background are just barely audible.

The vocals are improved on this album. On “Feeling,” Graves’ voice was so buried under the music that it was barely audible. They’re at least audible here, although the lyrics are almost entirely unintelligible. They might be taking a Lightning Bolt approach, burying the lyrics under fuzzy vocals to add a shroud of mystery. One of the album’s only other truly unmistakable lines is in “Interference Fits” – “Since when do we say yes to love?” – just intelligible enough to let the listener know what a red herring the album’s title really is. What follows, is Graves dubbed twice over herself, singing three different things at once.

Perfect Pussy have been one of the biggest bands to watch for 2014 and, no, they’re probably not going to become a household name, but they’re making waves in the music world. “Say Yes to Love,” even in its lighter moments, is intense. 23 straight minutes of vicious energy, fronted by Graves’ shout-singing (and Garrett Koloski’s machine-like drumming). Perfect Pussy have emerged from an otherwise empty Syracuse scene, and they’re here to stay.

If you like this, try: Potty Mouth’s “Hell Bent.” It’s not half as intense, but it matches PP’s pop-punk chords and lo-fi production.

-By Andrew McNally