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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Sinai Vessel – “profanity [ep]”

(Photo Credit: bandcamp)

Grade: A-

Key Track: “cuckold”

The guys in North Carolina’s Sinai Vessel were once approached after a show by someone, who may or may not have enjoyed the show, who called their music “punk for sissies.” The phrase “punk for sissies” is now draped across the band’s bandcamp page, as a source of inspiration. Taken in a non-derogatory way, the phrase fits the band – they’re punk, but one that’s smarter and more personal than most. There are hints of emo in their music, often in place of punk energy. Their new EP, “profanity,” is a solidly well-rounded listen that examines maturity and confusion, in a manner that switches from angry to introspective.

The EP doesn’t exactly start with any punches. Opener “cats” aligns itself a little closer to some twinkly emo than to punk, even if it’s examining small town religion. The vocals, as they are across the EP, are forceful, but the more midtempo music sets the tone of the EP – melodic and reflective, not always going for volume. The second track, “greatham,” is simply a forty second interlude. “cuckold,” possibly the EP’s best song, is a little louder and packs a secret punch in both it’s power and it’s poetry.

“drown around” matches the melodic and powerful nature of “cuckold,” with it’s screamed vocals and honest lyrics. Sinai Vessel are not focused on pulling intense punches, but the EP’s midpoint is it’s most forceful and loudest section. “flannery” is a very honest track, with the line “good country people with bad city hearts” repeated throughout. It serves as a slower song, and possibly the most developed on the whole EP. And “index on the oval” is a heavy and drawn-out finale, one that fits the EP well.

The band, consisting of Caleb Cordes on guitar, bass and vocals, Nathan Larson on drums and David Wimbish on horns, can easily create an atmosphere of cerebral and vulnerable punk, a largely untapped market. Sinai Vessel can be loud when they want to, and can even stretch themselves in post-punk (like on “index on the oval”). But they don’t overdo anything – they’re content playing midtempo and melodic rock most of the time. “profanity” is an eclectic work, one that shows Sinai Vessel have different intentions than most punk bands. Where the vocals are often intense, the music isn’t necessarily, and it’s a blend that entirely works. Sinai Vessel might be “punk for sissies,” but it’s punk for smart and despairing people, too.

You can stream and download the EP here.

If you like this, try: For the sound of Sinai Vessel, the emo-punk blend of Sleep Weather that I happened to have just reviewed. For the idea of Sinai Vessel, check out the band Swearin’, a relatively calm and poetic band that still qualifies as punk.

Some Quick Reviews – “Other Albums”

Sometimes, I’ll listen to a new release and definitely feel ways about it, but I just can’t quite put them into words. So here’s some quick blast reviews because there’s been a number lately that have been worthy of praise but that I haven’t been able to come up with reviews of:

Swearin’ – “Surfing Strange” – B+:  It’s tough to call this album ‘punk,’ even in an era where the definition of the word differs person to person. It’s pretty, often soft and incredibly different from song to song. What it is, really, is great songwriting. The Crutchfield sisters (Allison, in this band, and Katie, the sole member of Waxahatachee) have yet to put out a remotely subpar album between them. Swearin’ is one of the best bands around today, so take note.

Haim – “Days Are Gone” – B+: As a whole, the album seems really repetitive. Every song sounds pretty similar. But when you listen to it track-by-track, you’ll realize that each song has a lot of time and effort on it, and that this trio of sisters are very talented songwriters and musicians. It almost sounds like music your parents like – and it probably is. But it’s catchy and original, give them your time.

The Naked and Famous – “In Rolling Waves” – B-:  “In Rolling Waves” isn’t a unique album, and it doesn’t try to be. It’s just a collection of largely good, dance songs. The album isn’t very memorable, but it’s easy to enjoy. “Hearts Like Ours” is one of my favorite songs of the year.

CHVRCHES – “The Bones Of What You Believe” – A-:  Much in the vain of the Naked and Famous, every song on this album is synth-driven and it all kind of sounds the same, but it’s an incredibly energetic album for something so catchy. Very great debut.

Tancred – “Tancred” – B-:  “Tancred” is a pretty great blending of emo, punk and folk influences. Everything sounds great on the album – it’s just all over a little too soon.

Best Coast – “Fade Away” – B: Being someone that’s not a big fan of the band, and given that it’s an EP, I couldn’t accurately say why I really enjoyed this release. But it’s just an entertaining listen, a good step for the band. Their songwriting has improved consistently, and they’re feeling comfortable as a weird, garage-rock/dream-pop mix.

Parquet Courts – “Tally All the Things That You Broke” – B+: This follow-up EP to their debut (which also came out this year – one of the best albums of the year) slows things down a bit and gets more detective. Even though it’s unexpected, it all works. Parquet Courts, a throwback garage band out of NYC, are a band I consider to be one of the best in American music today. This EP only bolsters that.

Chumped – “Chumped” – A-: It’s tough to stand out in pop-punk, but Chumped’s energetic and smart music make for a release much better than most of the schlock in the genre. It’s another great debut in an already pretty full year. Also, they’re great people. That always helps.

AFI – “Burials” – B-: I started writing a review for “Burials” the day it came out. It’s a few weeks later, sorry guys. What I had said so far was that AFI, for the first time in their career, sound like they have no barriers to conquer. So they’ve combined their 90’s hardcore punk with their ’00’s emo into what’s a largely entertaining album. It’s arena-rock ambitions are on an awful level similar to Muse and the Killers, but the band doesn’t always go there. When they’re just being themselves, it feels comfortable and zeitgeist-less, and it feels right. They stray away from that comfort zone too frequently, but it’s got all the gloom you expect from an AFI album, with a renewed energy.