Prawn – “Kingfisher”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Scud Running” “Absurd Walls”

Emo revivalists Prawn’s new album is full of light, airy and melodic songs that are often vague in tone but practiced in music. Though it has it’s weak moments, Prawn have been an uniquely line-teetering band for years, and “Kingfisher” only goes to continue it.

A Kingfisher is a bird. Specifically, a type of bright, distinct and goofy looking bird. One that has been known to eat fish. In many ways, a kingfisher is everything that Prawn is not. Prawn is vague and unassuming, at first. Their music isn’t showy, especially for emo. It’s rhythmic and often lucid, blending together into something that’s surprisingly pleasant. So a kingfisher makes sense, as the band spends the album threatening to be consumed by various existential forces (much like a fish getting swallowed up). It’s either ironic or totally fitting that Prawn have spent the last few years hanging out in the limelight of the emo revival. While some (Snowing, teen suicide) made news with almost immediate breakups, and some (TWIABPAIANLATD, the Front Bottoms) strain themselves to make something jarring and original, Prawn have been building their own blend of guitar rhythms and aligning melodies that’s more soothing than it is jarring – something that isn’t designed to make as immediate of an impact at first.

And “Kingfisher” is certainly filled with those interesting melodies. The album starts and ends with strings, that fall away for the eight songs in between. And the album does dissolve into straight rock – happening infrequently enough that it’s a surprise each time. Loopy guitar rhythms are big in emo these days, but Prawn bring it up a notch by relying equally on melodies that are either very repetitive or different throughout. “Prolonged Exposure” is a guitar-heavy track that emphasizes this, as is “Absurd Walls,” where twin guitar rhythms compete in the background, one giving way to sounding like a siren. Prawn have learned to embrace both slower, ambient songs, and louder, rocking ones, and hit every notch in between on “Kingfisher.”

On a lyrical note, the album does get kind of frustratingly vague. It’s filled with typically deep, sad, statements, often opting for philosophical questions about some hypothetical, impending disasters rather than any direct and reflective poetry. Sometimes, like on “Glass, Irony” it can work, with the line “It’s hard to hide in dire straits” shoved to the forefront of the song. Other times, like on “Thalassa,” it gets clunky. “I’m glad you found clarity in ambiguity” is repeated a few times at the song’s climax, a line that doesn’t exactly sound fresh. Some of the songs could’ve used some clarity themselves.

But “Kingfisher” is still a very strong release, one that’s both pleasant and devastating. Prawn are at the top of their game and, even if the top of their game is positioned in the genre’s background, then it’s what they’ve learned to excel in. At times sweet, at times sour, “Kingfisher” is just as good as we’ve come to expect from Prawn.

“Kingfisher” is out tomorrow, 8/12, on Topshelf Records.

Grammer – “Awesome Knifes”

(Photo Credit: bandcamp)

Grade: A-

Key Track: “Quit (Your Job)”

“Twinkly emo” is a terrible name for a genre, but it’s impossible to ignore the almost meteoric rise of emo’s fourth-wave. (It’s practically founded this blog). Fourth-wave emo has risen like drug rock did in 1967, thanks largely to now-defunct bands Snowing and Algernon Cadwallader channeling Midwestern second-wave bands. Since then, pop-punk and punk bands like the Menzingers, Dads and Modern Baseball have fallen inline with the genre, as have more creative bands like the collective The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die’s discordant six minute songs about volcanoes. But bands like Grammer – properly from the Midwest – invoke a simpler, 2011 sound that’s somehow now a throwback to a throwback.

Grammer’s debut EP is five songs and roughly thirteen minutes, and really feels like the EP’s of the subgenre’s two origin bands. All five songs are midtempo and are grounded by those (ugh) twinkly guitar rhythms that dominated pretty much every song Snowing ever recorded. Opening track “Astronaww, Man” even sounds a little like Snowing. They seem to channel a few different specific influences throughout the EP. “Coy Wolf” matches Algernon Cadwallader in it’s harsh vocals ugly pairing over clean riffs. “Quit (Your Job)” sounds a little like Dads, with more of a chord-based punk sound. But this isn’t copying predecessors, because Grammer have their own sound. They’re a little grittier, and their lyrics about childhood and life eschew complaining for apathy.

The people in Grammer – Maxx on vocals, Dakota and Miles on guitar, Grady on bass, and Alex on drums, are good musicians and songwriters. This EP fits nicely into the ever-increasing qualifications of fourth-wave emo, without sounding like it’s trying to. It hints at indie and punk, and hints at some emotions and lyrics thematically different than most emo bands. And there are surprises – like the great false ending to “Cigarette Regimen.” “Emo” has become an umbrella term over the last year, for any sort of sad, poetic, relatable, twinkly, fast, slow, loud, soft combination desirable. Grammer are more straightforward than most, and “Awesome Knifes” is a promising EP for a proper, no-frills, Midwestern group.

The EP is available for stream and downloading here.

If you like this, try: It should be obvious here that I’ll mention one of two bands. So try any releases by Snowing, if for some reason you haven’t already.

A Great Big Pile of Leaves – “You’re Always on my Mind”

(Photo Credit: Top Shelf Records)

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Pet Mouse,” “Fun in the Sun”

A Great Big Pile of Leaves hit a high on their 2010 debut, “Have You Seen My Prefontal Cortex?” The band established themselves as a fun, alt-pop band that hold up remarkably well against their sadder labelmates like Snowing and Pianos Become the Teeth. Their music is fun, bouncy and often completely innocent while maintaining a steady volume and guitar attacks. Their debut is a pleasantly diverse album, sonically pleasing, full of fun and introspective tracks. Their second album, “You’re Always on my Mind,” out today, does not quite live up to the expectations set up by “Cortex.” The album is more reminiscent of their earlier EP’s, which are still bouncy guitar songs, but feel a little less inspired than their debut album.

The album’s summer release date is no accident. This is definitely a summer album. That might give the expectation of a Yellowcard or Cartel type pop-punk thing, but they are much more associated with alternative than most summer bands. The album’s food-based bookends are called “Snack Attack” and “Pizzanomics,” offering the exact sound you’d expect from the humorous titles. “Back to School” is the most summer-y song on the album, a literal ode to summer before having to go back to school. There is a gleeful tone to the album, a carefree sound that are reminders of good times, even if they’re in the past. The band does not seem to be looking for any sort of validation, or to be taken seriously. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t – they’re talented musicians and have nailed down the art of fun songwriting. But their lack of seriousness adds to the fun on the album.

The album might not be as good as its predecessor, but it is still a good album. It is easy music to put on during a drive or a nice summer bike ride. It does not demand your patience, even your attention. It does its job as innocent alt-pop, providing an alternative to the usual pop on the radio and to the usual gloom of alternative music. It takes the best of both worlds. It might not be perfect, but it is fun.

If you like this, try: “Dig Up Your Dead” by Mansions (2011). Not as fun and not as good, but the band does sound kind of similar.

-By Andrew McNally

The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – “Whenever, If Ever”

Photo  Credit: Top Shelf Records

Photo Credit: Top Shelf Records

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Picture of a Tree That Doesn’t Look Okay,” “You Will Never Go To Space,” “Ultimate Steve”

The band trying to claim their prize for current longest name have released their full-length debut on the glorious Top Shelf Records. The band – often abbreviated, or called “The World Is” for short – is a six-piece from Connecticut. They differ from Top Shelf’s normal bands, who fall under the umbrella term of ‘modern emo’ (here’s looking at you, Snowing). They are definitely a modern emo band, but one that is even more original than their label-mates. Their first EP’s, “Formlessness” and “Josh Is Dead,” were four and three tracks, respectively. But in those three tracks the band established themselves as one that was not afraid to play around with lo-fi influences that can also include group choruses and screaming intensity.

Those previous EP’s showed that The World Is was not afraid of recording a quiet and toned-down piece that builds to a big and loud payoff later on the album. While bands will often do this in a song (think: nearly every Sonic Youth song), The World Is does it as arcs. Two songs might be separate ideas that contribute to a booming climax a song later. It’s all very unique and often very wrenching. Their first full-length, though, suffers from too much build-up and not enough pay-off.

That is not to say the album is not good. It’s great, it’s absolutely great. Even in it’s outwardly subdued moments, the band can easily create an uneasy feeling, a sense that something is not right. They competently do this in every one of the album’s ten songs. This is what emo sounds like now, inspired equally by shoegaze, experimentation, other current emo bands, and probably suburban CT life. The World Is is one of my favorite bands out there now, they’re pioneering a wholly new sound. “Whenever, If Ever” just needs one or two more pay-offs of screaming vocals to separate the quiet moments. Still, this album is unique. It has its faults, but it is extraordinarily original. And at the end of the day, a band making some faulty quests into new territory is largely better than one sticking around in familiar territory.

If you like this, try: Their old EP’s, mentioned above. All are available on Spotify and Bandcamp. Alternately, “Fun” by Algernon Cadwallader or “I Could Do Whatever I Wanted If I Wanted” by Snowing. Check out every band on Top Shelf Records, if you’re truly interested.

-By Andrew McNally