It’s a new year, so that means new content for Each Note Secure. Every couple weeks or so, I’ll be reviewing a handful of new records. These reviews will be less about whether or not an album is objectively “good” and more about whether it’s cool and/or interesting and/or worth your time. Because I don’t know about you, but I hear about tons of “good” music released all the time. I’m only interested in stuff that won’t fucking bore me.
It took me awhile to think of a grading scale. Should I go the Pitchfork route with super-exact scores down to the tenth decimal place (give me a goddamn break), or should I go with Vice’s simple smiley face/pukey face combo? (I have to admit I admire the simplicity). Ultimately I decided to go with the tried-and-true five star method, but I replaced stars with the most Cincinnatian thing I could think of – cheese coneys. This might change later on, but for now it’s cheese coneys.
This batch has a lot of bigger releases because I was trying to clean out all the end-of-2012 crap. I’m going to be focusing on local records in weeks to come. Ultimately, this is supposed to be about what we in Cincinnati find cool, not what some Brooklyn blogger tells us is cool. Feel free to comment on any of these reviews if you agree, disagree, or wish I would kill myself.
The Joy Formidable
4 out of 5 cheese coneys
I love the Joy Formidable because they remind me of listening to music before I was concerned with electronic experimentation, genre deconstructionism, or blog hype. The way their heavy guitars and drums pound away speaks to the grinning, air guitar strumming 15 year-old inside me.
Wolf’s Law contains sufficient riffage to excite that teenager in anyone, but it unfortunately carries the difficult badge of being the Joy Formidable’s second album. As such, it has a host of requirements to live up to even before the first note is struck. Their full-length debut, 2011’s The Big Roar, contained so many ideas and supernatural rock-outs that it was constantly under the threat of buckling under the weight of its own ambition. Wolf’s Law, by comparison, doles out its ideas in a more balanced and mannered way. The Joy Formidable have their requisite rockers with songs like “Cholla” and “Bats.” But they’ve also got delicate acoustic moments (“Silent Treatment”), and heavily produced “album-oriented-rock” moments (“Maw Maw Song” and “The Turnaround/Wolf’s Law”). Judging from their lyrics and video imagery, the Joy Formidable also seem to have developed an interest in naturalism and environmentalism, which is kind of unexpected and strange.
This record proves the Joy Formidable have ideas beyond 90’s alternative-rock riffing, and they’ve learned to present them in a more digestible, less frantic way. But while Wolf’s Law doesn’t have the wild top-heaviness of The Big Roar, it doesn’t have a burner like that album’s high point, “Whirring,” either. If we’re continuing to compare the Joy Formidable with 90’s bands like Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, it has to be said that Wolf’s Law is neither Nevermind nor Siamese Dream. As sophomore efforts go, I would have to advance a decade and compare it with Interpol’s Antics: more layered, more mature, but without the stand-out moments of the debut. Let’s hope this is a function of the Joy Formidable coming to terms with their developing songwriting and not of them running out of ideas.
1.5 out of 5 cheese coneys
If all the rich kid asshole hipsters you knew in college decided to form a band, they’d create something like Ducktails. And to make it even more frustrating for you, they’re really not that bad. They’d be easier to write off if their songs were horrible. Unfortunately, they make unassailably pleasant reverbed-out guitar jams. I have to say, I wish this record sucked more than it does. It would definitely make me feel better about myself.
Although The Flower Lane isn’t horrible, per se, we still don’t really need it to exist. There’s nothing truly great about any of these songs and the band sticks to sounds we’ve pretty much heard before on a million other indie albums. By the way, check out this video of Ducktails that Pitchfork did like six months ago. These guys seem like the fucking worst. I’m going to go ahead and start ignoring them now. The indierockblogiverse will start soon enough.
3.5 out of 5 cheese coneys
Guys, this is how you do “twee as fuck.” Shugo Tokumaru is a multi-instrumentalist and singer who locks himself away for months at a time to record intricate pop songs composed of 20 or more carefully-arranged instrument parts. It’s so dense, in fact, that the actual instruments used are a little difficult to parse out. It sounds like he’s using everything from guitars and drums to xylophones, toy pianos, rubber duckies, and singing saws. He sings in Japanese, and the tunes can range from brilliantly uplifting to so manic and off-kilter that it feels like hearing a children’s music album played from a malfunctioning turntable while you’re on acid.
Although there are moments of exceeding sweetness, take it from me: you should pull a few of these songs into a separate playlist if you’re trying to play them during a dinner party or have sex with them on in the background. Blocks of beautiful songs are interrupted by a minute-and-a-half bullshit exercises that are just Shugo slamming his prepared toy piano or making his ukulele moan to an infuriating rhythm.
By the way, what’s going on with this? It reminds me of New Magnetic Wonder by Apples in Stereo, when Robert Schneider interrupted his awesome pop songs with those “non-Pythagorean compositions” that no gave a shit about. It feels like breaking up really great songs with almost unlistenable experimental bullshit is the indie-rock version of those skits on hip-hop albums from the 90’s and 00’s that everyone made fun of so much.
Yo La Tengo
4.5 out of 5 cheese coneys
It’s a new Yo La Tengo record, so of course it’s awesome. Who are you to say any different?
Seriously though, Yo La Tengo have been good for so long in the exact same way that they’re getting pretty boring. It’s hard to come up with anything new to say about them. I’m going to go ahead and take away half a cheese coney because of it.
Someday, if I have have a kid who wants to get into older rock and hears about Yo La Tengo and asks me what album he should try first I’d have to be like, “Uh, I don’t know . . . all of them? Any of them? As long as it’s not Summer Sun.”
2.5 out of 5 cheese coneys
Everyone really likes the idea of Tegan and Sara, but I always wonder how many people actually have them on their iPods. They’ve been unmovable from the pantheon of “respectable,” NPR-friendly indie pop for over a decade now. I don’t get it. I’ve never really connected with a single song I’ve heard, but their undeniable charm (two lovable and mulletted indie pixie Canadian twins making self-consciously pleasant pop rock) continues to pull them along from album to album.
The problem I had with this record mirrors the problems I have with Tegan and Sara as a group. Heartthrob is supposed to be their shiny, ultra-slick dance pop record. It was produced by Greg Kurstin, who made his name adding sparkle to hit tracks by the likes of Pink and Kelly Clarkson. Indie rock journalists are going to use words like “sugary,” “glossy,” and “radio-friendly” to describe this record, but I don’t hear a single stirring hook or chorus that’ll conceivably bring people out on the dance floor. This could be partially encouraging to long-time devotees: it’s proof the sisters are still writing their own songs instead of allowing themselves to be ground through the gears of a pop song factory-for-hire like the Matrix.
The downside is that instead of a radical business experiment we get another collection of vague love songs, just with compressed beats and stabby synths this time. Heartthrob, like Tegan and Sara themselves, is pleasant and competent but unremarkable. The duo get damn close to their pop princess goals with sweet smashes like “Closer” and “Drove Me Wild,” (which both have the chops to be great electro-house remixes, if anyone’s looking for material) but I hear more Gap changing room than club dance floor in these songs.
By the way, here’s a funny story: I’ve only seen Tegan and Sara perform live one time, and it was at Lollapalooza in 2005. I was 19 and having a pretty terrible summer in which I worked nine hours a day framing houses with a construction company in Maryville, Tennessee. I basically spent three months dragging stacks of scrap wood around build sites in the hot sun for nine dollars an hour. Anyway, I was on a weekend vacation in Chicago watching these Canadian sprites melt in the late July, 105 degree Illinois sun. They looked pretty miserable sweating all over their acoustic guitars while low-pitched rumbling from the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s set across the festival field pretty much overwhelmed their light audio mix. I was at my shittiest schadenfreude moment to scoff at how they couldn’t handle the heat.
I’ve always associated this mental image with my own idea of Tegan and Sara: a bunch of well-meaning ideas and charm all flushed and pink, just frying and flop-sweating in the sun.