Time to get Schwifty in here

I’ve seen enough. These guys are one-hit wonders. – General Nathan

Expectations can be a bitch. In the financial world, a company can grow its profits 25% in a year and yet see its stock price plunge if the market was expecting a 30% gain. Such can be the way with entertainment as well. In an age where streaming services spew out hit series one after another, you’re only as good as your latest show. A band’s fanbase can swell faster than the White Walker horde if lured by that rare album or song that is truly original and also enjoyable listen to … but if the band can’t advance upon or completely change their sound on the next record they wind up being dismissed with claims of “one-hit wonder” or “all their songs sound the same”.

Have to admit I was perhaps too harsh on the latest Broken Social Scene album “Hug of Thunder,” which at first sounded to me like they were just going through the motions. Further listening is revealing some depth in the music (if not the lyrics and titles), so this one may be worth a few more spins. Still feeling let down by the new stuff from some other indie heavyweights, though: Arcade Fire must be taking the piss, and LCD Soundsystem might be attempting a comeback just for the money.

There are many factors that can color our expectations, make us predisposed to a positive or negative response. Philadelphia sports fans are fair-weathered, if not fickle. You’re a hero one day and a bum the next. My Philly roots have me always rooting for War on Drugs, though it’s a pride tempered by fears of an impending letdown. After first becoming a fan on the strength of “Slave Ambient,” I was disappointed with “Lost in the Dream.” But while the band did indeed seem “lost” for a bit, imprisoned by the template, they now seem to have found a way to revel in it. “A Deeper Understanding” is another aptly named album, an intense justification of the group’s existence, and it’s consistency. The latest record’s instrumentation is perhaps a little broader, with the full band complementing Adam Granduciel’s compositions. This makes the songs feel somewhat lighter than the dense “Slave”. Perhaps it’s best to express my appreciation in true Philly style, by damning an opponent, so you hopefully this record will make Mark Kozelek stfu!

Somewhat similarly, Grizzly Bear’s “Painted Ruins” builds on a career-making album and helps bury the memory of an underperforming follow-up. While there are echoes of “Veckatimest ” in the chord progressions and tones, “Ruin” is gorgeous and grand in comparison with the earlier album’s dark intimacy. Bassist/producer Chris Taylor achieves a super-lush sound, complementing and blending the works of songwriters Dan Rossen and Ed Droste seamlessly. Drummer Christopher Bear bolsters his reputation as one of indie rock’s great secret weapons – I could listen to his snare work all day. Without Bear there is no Grizzly. He is the anchor without which this uber-talented group could slip through a wormhole into the past or another dimension to become a giant, flesh-eating prog rock monster (but perhaps I’ve just been watching too much Rick & Morty).

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Get off my lawn

“It’s just some funny old kitschy thing to him he saw on YouTube. But that was my commercial. I actually experienced it. You know?” – Ben Stiller ibn “While We’re Young”.

I finally watched this Noah Baumbach film over the weekend, with the much more appropriate Japan-release title “Young Adult New York”. I really related to the Josh character and admired the fine acting by Stiller, Naomi Watts and Adam Horovitz (?!?) plus … those kids, you know, that new Darth Vader guy and the chick that played Mark Wahlberg’s girlfriend in “Ted 2”. There was a surprising twist with Josh moving from initial attraction to the young hipsters toward eventual rejection of their cruel indifference to “the truth”.

Cultural misappropriation is a key theme and is amusingly handled via Adam Driver’s character naming his band after Carvel’s 1980s St. Patrick’s Day ice cream cake Cookie O’Puss, much to the annoyance of Josh (and, no doubt, first-gen Cookie P. appropriator AdRock). But bearing in mind that there is truly nothing new under the sun, it really all comes down to perception, doesn’t it? One man’s innovation is another’s bastardization. Where do we draw the line?

I’ve been listening to the recent releases from Deep State and Baked this week. My first impressions of both were that they were pretty derivative, but by the end of the week I was quite liking them. I have to wonder if Baumbach’s film had somehow prejudiced me against them temporarily. I fell pretty quickly for bands like Yuck, Car Seat Headrest and Whitney, none of whom are especially original. I can tell you WHAT I like about these groups’ sounds but when it comes down to WHY I like them it gets more difficult. Especially if I have to explain it vis a vis why I don’t like Speedy Ortiz, Vampire Weekend or Cabbage.

Deep State are a fun mix of classic punk and modern indie rock. Nothing especially sets them apart from recent peers like Cloud Nothings, except their singer, who sounds a like a guy who’s stayed up all night smoking, drinking and singing Paul McCartney and Gilbert O’Sullivan songs in karaoke. Baked is a bit more novel, with an odd fusion of alt-country and shoegaze that is done so naturally it doesn’t come across at all as bizarre as that description sounds. In the end it just comes down to the songs. And these are some some pretty good ones.

Like a punk rock Huck Finn

Still digesting the bevy of albums released last week, including the latest from Matthew Sweet, Jason Lowenstein, Lost Balloons and Kevin Morby. Was especially looking forward to those last two and was somewhat taken aback at first by how quiet they both are. But growing on me, they are. Still think the standout track on Lost Balloons’ Hey Summer is the previously released single “Numb,” but the rest of the songs are sounding stronger with every listen. Soon it may even catch up to their self-titled debut in my rotation.

Kevin Morby’s City Music is also starting to inch up toward the high expectations I had after last year’s amazing Singing Saw. I’ve listened to the new release 4 or 5 times now and I’m finally starting to comprehend it, as a piece of Americana. While not really country or folk, Morby’s Dylanesque voice will always make his music lean that way in my ears. Apparently it’s a sort of concept album about some old woman named Mabel in the titular “City” of New York. But for me the main character is Morby himself, as a Brooklyn and L.A.-schooled musical carpetbagger about to lay siege to Nashville, or Memphis, or New Orleans.

This interpretation seemingly runs into trouble early at songs 2 and 3. “Crybaby” is a clean-guitar interpretation of a Pixies chord progression (and I like to think inspired by a John Waters film?), while “1234” is an unlikely sounding tribute to the Ramones and Jim Carroll. At first these stood out like sore thumbs, but the more I listen to the album the more they fit in just fine alongside the bluesy shuffle of “City Music,” the Guthrie/Dylan folk of “Downtown’s Light,” the spiritual “Dry Your Eyes,” and “Flannery,” which is simply a woman giving a dramatic reading of a section of O’Connor’s novel The Violent Bear It Away. Such is the great cultural hodgepodge that is the country that produced this unique voice. Kevin, if you’re planning on continuing your quest toward an American epic, I’ve got a title for your next album: Morby Dick. (Really, you can have it.)

Now that’s a hit!

“OMG, this my favorite GBV album since … ” has been said many times over the years about albums that soon wind up on the back burner, then the back shelf, then the backseat of the car on the way to the used record store. But longtime loyal miners of the band’s seemingly endless output should be pleased by the high gem-to-turd ratio in August By Cake. The stylistic variety is noteworthy, with the band bouncing easily from Big Star pop (“Goodbye Note”), to barroom rockers (“Keep Me Down”) to shoegaze (“Deflect Project”), all with a unique GBV spin. A positive review at The Fire Note states that Pollard had every other member of the current lineup contribute songs and vocals, and that certainly seems to be one of its strengths. Bobby Bare Jr. is responsible for the excellent “High Five Hall of Famers,”Fire Note says, and drummer Kevin March gave us what jumps out to me as the first obvious hit from the album, “Overloaded“. It’s another Big Starish tune, with chorus lyrics via Teenage Fanclub.

New releases (pending and realized)

Cautiously optimistic that the new Wrens album may be on the way soon. Trying not to get too excited as they have made oh so many promises before and failed to deliver. In the meantime, I listened to the new releases by a couple of old favorites this week. Unfortunately, In Mind is the first Real Estate album I’ve actually been disappointed in. For all the talk about their lineup changes, I think they’ve just run out of steam. While I was hooked by the beautiful simplicity of their first two albums, this fourth one leaves me feeling BTDT from the first track. I think they need to really change up their sound, maybe pushing more radically in the trippy country direction of the Byrds-reminiscent “Two Arrows“.

In contrast, I was pleasantly surprised by the new Cloud Nothings album Life Without Sound. The mix is more smooth and poppy, and it suits the band better than I would have thought. No doubt much of the credit is due to producer John Goodmanson, whose body of work includes Transatlanticism and Dig Me Out. For those missing the thrashy brilliance of the Steve Albini-helmed Attack on Memory, the new album does descend into chaos a bit over the last two songs. But overall I like the new direction. Goodmanson makes the guitars a little lower and cleaner, drawing more depth and warmth from the vocals and drums. Nice example on the lead single.

Revenge of the nerdy music film

Finally watched the “Revenge of the Mekons” doc over the long weekend in Japan. Enjoyed it quite a bit, though for some reason YouTube squeezed the picture into just one-quarter of my 42″ plasma screen. It’s a lovefest in the vein of “Color Me Obsessed”, a doc about another bunch of loveable losers, the Replacements. “Revenge” opts to actually feature the Mekons themselves though, which is a good call because they’re a riot. Like most band docs, it could have benefited from more live footage from the group in its prime (from “Fear and Whiskey” through “Curse of the Mekons”). But good fun for longtime fans like myself, and a decent introduction for the uninitiated. If it’s too much of an investment of time, just check out one of their rare “proper” videos for one of their best songs.

Everything Flows

Great show by Teenage Fanclub at Yokohama Bay Hall last night. “Teenage Fanclub? All their songs sound the same.” Yep, ain’t it great? And the amazing thing is they do it with three different singer/songwriters. I still often have trouble distinguishing them when listening to a recording. So a live performance is always a nice reminder of who does what.

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Norman handles the winning grin, avuncular sweaters and Les Paul/ES335 swapping. Gerry’s got the curls and treacly voice. Raymond is the master of the tremolo solo and the car mechanic song lyrics. Put it all in a blender and it becomes a sweet, smooth milkshake. Most of the new songs sounded great, perfectly slotting in with the old favourites. “I’m In Love” especially is destined for the TFC canon. Don’t think I’ve ever seen them not play “The Concept,” thank god.

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My first time at the venue, which is massive compared to most places I see gigs at in Tokyo. Very elegant with a couple of huge chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. And an adequately staffed bar separate from the stage area is a most welcome feature. Kind of hard to get the sound exactly perfect for a fuzzy indie band in such an expansive hall, but the sound crew did an admirable job.

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