Author: Nic Smith

Thee-Oh-Sees-Mutilator-Defeated-At-Last album cover

Thee-Oh-Sees-Mutilator-Defeated-At-Last album coverThee Oh Sees
Mutilator Defeated At Last

Castle Face
Street: 05.26
Thee Oh Sees = Ty Segall + The Go + Black Lips

It really is astounding how John Dwyer’s Thee Oh Sees are able to consistently turn out the amount of quality psych rock tunes that they have throughout the last decade. As one of the key groups for the West Coast’s psychedelic revival movement, I expected no less from their latest release. In this album, Thee Oh Sees are up to their usual tricks (new band members aside) with aggressive surf-garage noise-psych jams that don’t quit. Tracks such as “Withered Hand” and “Turned Out Light” possess a contagious energy that makes me prone to cruising around the city with my windows down. Additionally, though, the album has its moments of relief and contemplation. “Holy Smoke” especially carries a Kurt Vile–esque chord progression, which somehow resists melancholia. Whether or not you’ve heard much of their other music, it’s worth keeping up with these guys. They won’t let you down. –Nic Smith

Mike Krol

Mike Krol

Merge Records
Street: 08.28
Mike Krol = Wavves + The Gooch Palms

Mike Krol’s third release is another contribution to the sneering, lo-fi California punk-rock sound that is validating hip, white suburb deserters everywhere. In no way deviating from his previous albums, Krol plays short and sweet. Each track averages about two minutes of quick-tempo, stylized pop-chord progressions with snot-nosed love lyrics. It’s kind of fun, kind of annoying and kind of predictable. In “Left Out (ATTN: SoCal Garage Rockers),” Krol expresses not fitting into a scene and doing his own thing, but embeds the message within the very style that he’s supposedly protesting. I don’t know. The whole thing feels a little insecure. The last song, “Piano Shit,” is especially like some faux-serious gesture of what Krol’s music could sound like, but then he pulls it back the way a teenager does when he’s afraid of being made fun of for his feelings. I think I’m good with a Wavves album. –Nic Smith

Sacri Monti

Sacri Monti

Tee Pee Records
Street: 07.24
Sacri Monti = Deep Purple + Thin Lizzy + Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats

Coming out of California, Sacri Monti are a ’70s-influenced psych rock band who sound like something that most dads would probably consider to be pretty badass. For me, however, this group has an exhaustingly excessive playing style that’s saturated with flourishing guitar licks and many, many solos. Averaging at about seven minutes per track, Sacri Monti take the listener on for the long haul. To be fair, this album is extremely colorful in its parts: heavy organs, panning guitar tones, driving bass lines and physically demanding drum fills. Yet, I just didn’t find myself enjoying listening to them jam for this long. The first track, “Staggered In Lines,” does a good job at bringing me in, but the entirety of the album has an almost metal level of showmanship that I find a little tiring, even though they’re super talented. Maybe I’m just not that into wah pedals. –Nic Smith


New Kingdom

Street: 11.13.15
GIVERS = Reptar + Grouplove + Dirty Projectors

It’s been four years since this Louisiana-based five-piece released their striving and disarmingly joyful debut album, In Light. Though certainly not lacking for energy, GIVERS’ new album shows that they’re chasing a much different monster than what some might have expected earlier. As a whole, New Kingdom is pulling for big emotions. The band washes themselves in reverbed-synth ambience and wide bass fuzz behind big choruses. For me, it wobbles a little between being captivating and being cheesy, but that’s kind of what I loved about the first album, too. The instrumentation stays true to their funk/zydeco/indie fusion, and the tracks still feature the playful back-and-forth singing of Taylor Guarisco and Tiffany Lamson. Check out “Sleeper Hold” (feat. Dr. John), “Sure Thang” and “Lightning.” –Nic Smith

Crystal Castles – Amnesty (I)

Crystal Castles
Amnesty (I)

Fiction Records
Street: 08.19
Crystal Castles = Purity Ring + The Soft Moon + Pinkshinyultrablast

When Alice Glass left Crystal Castles in 2014, it will suffice to say that a lot of fans were left feeling pretty bummed. For many, Glass’ energetic performances had made her synonymous for Crystal Castles as a whole, and without her, the iconic name initially seemed empty and about as appealing as a bag of off-brand Fruity Pebbles. However, the founder and primary composer, Ethan Kath, decided to continue and recruited the new frontwoman, Edith Frances, for the track “Frail” back in April of 2015. Since then, Frances has been filling the shoes many had considered impossible to fill, and the pair’s first album, Amnesty (I), holds up the band’s trajectory of bold electronic punk.

The opening song, “Femen,” begins with the haunting sounds of a big-chorus vocal track being looped backwards behind the sputtering of a lo-fi drum kit. Its ominous but serene curtain is suddenly pulled away as the hook of “Fleece” introduces you to the rave of your nightmares. “Fleece” feels like you’re six hours deep into a fitful pill bender at a basement nightclub that favors aggressive strobe lighting. Frances’ lyrics are mostly inaudible, switching between stadium reverb, static wailing and the coolly stated “I love your hand, baby.” With the help of the menacing synth line, the song both suggests the possibility of its listener’s unnoticed reliance on drum cues (tell me when to jump; now tell me when to chill) and proves that hand-in-the-air responses can still be produced in a state of panic and anxiety. Tracks like “Enth,” “Kept” and “Concrete” are other examples of Crystal Castles’ subversive brand. They seem to expose the underlying anxiety that makes the promises of artists like Ellie Goulding, and other live-for-the-moment types, attractive. What if this embracing of abandonment, taken to its fullest extent, is meaningless on the other side? In the music video for “Concrete,” Frances is filmed walking backward through the dense crowd of a massive outdoor rave. She’s inconsiderate, inwardly angry, lashing out at random and trying to look sexy, all while maintaining the guise that she’s having a great time (a bit like many of those who attended Diplo at Twilight this year).

However, Amnesty (I) is not necessarily aiming to be a critique of EDM culture. Crystal Castles actually celebrate much of what EDM has given to music in terms of song structure and form (drops, dreamy sound effects, vocal modification, dance emphasis, etc). They’ve also replaced some of the glitch and chiptune elements of their earlier albums in favor of recent trends, such as trap beats and cinematic synth effects. In their calmer moments, Crystal Castles could be even be reasonably explained to a younger sibling as a fucked-up version of CHVRCHES. Yet, the real accomplishment of this album is their ability to keep making songs that transcend misery and ecstasy. The track “Char,” for example, though undeniably spooky, is still beautiful, contemplative and doesn’t give the closure that would make it a successful pop song. In a way, every track on this album could be the last song at a festival: peaking leads to happiness, leads to realizing the coming end, leads to lamenting, leads to loss. The final track, “Their Kindness is Charade,” signs off the record in this way. At the end of listening to Amnesty (I), there might be a moment of silence when there’s nothing coming out of your headphones and you’re slowly realizing that you’re a person again. Do you start the record over? –Nic Smith


1000 Days

Drag City
Street: 09.25
Wand = White Fence + of Montreal + Tame Impala

1000 Days marks Wand’s second full-length release in 2015, which, songwriting talent aside, is an impressive enough feat on its own. However, Wand takes a welcomed turn in this album from the heavy fuzz sounds found in Golem (though not departing entirely, of course) and create a kind of space rock that conjures images of cloaked cloud people in ’70s sci-fi films who live in bronze towers. It’s rad. The first track, “Grave Digger,” prepares the listener nicely with its cheesy synths and triumphant Brit-psych vocals. However, don’t set expectations too early because this album will expand itself to power rock (like “Sleepy Dog”) and then contract to acoustic dreamland (like “1000 Days”) back and forth many, many times. 1000 Days is definitely the greater of the two records they’ve released this year, but Wand is great—so just get both. –Nic Smith


Leave Me Alone

Mom + Pop Records
Street: 01.08
Hinds = Alvvays + Chastity Belt + The Parrots

If you’re following this young quartet from Madrid, Spain, then you’re probably aware of how they market their band to be a kind of perpetual backyard party. It’s a little funny but also entirely believable with the personality found in their newest album, Leave Me Alone. Hinds’ two frontwomen, Ana Perrote and Carlotta Cosials, sing back and forth or over each other while playing lo-fi, sunny guitar riffs. Although some songs are certainly repetitive, it’s hard not to like them anyway. The album features a few singles from earlier EPs, but new tracks like “Fat Calmed Kiddos,” “Solar Gap” and “And I Will Send Your Flowers Back” are worth checking out. If you plan on picking this up, definitely pay attention to how Ade Martin’s bass lines hold everything together. –Nic Smith

Weyes Blood | Front Row Seat to Earth | Mexican Summer

Weyes Blood
Front Row Seat to Earth

Mexican Summer
Street: 10.21
Weyes Blood = Angel Olsen + Charlie Hilton + Enya

Weyes Blood (aka Natalie Mering) belongs to the new movement of goth glam/folk female artists who resurrect the powers of vintage heartbreak ballads to become once again eerie, alluring and totally devastating. For her fourth release, Front Row Seat To Earth, Mering explores the loneliness of being both within and without love— each track a kind of soliloquy about saying goodbye to a partner.

Opening with “Diary” and “Used To Be,” Mering begins with her icy piano tones that slowly become lifted by harps, synths, organs, delicate drums and haunting backing vocals. At first listen, I couldn’t help picturing Karen Carpenter, or maybe a very distraught Olivia Newton John singing longingly to her reflection in a pond. Surprisingly though, the music manages to evoke this while still remaining deadly serious and even psychedelic. Mering is immersive if you give her patience. Between the lyrics and the sounds, like in “Used To Be,” she presents the emotional duality of heartbreak as the triumphant music backs her lamenting words: “[You] Used to be the one that knew me / saw through me.” It becomes apparent that Mering’s most compelling connections with the listener are found within the empty space left by many popular love songs throughout the ages. Rather than pushing for romantic extremes (“Stay, Baby, Stay” vs. “Hit The Road, Jack”), she both loves and lets go: “It’s just the two of us / And I want you to be free / Don’t worry about me / I got my thing.”

In the keystone track of the album, “Generation Why,” Mering resets the sonic landscape by using almost Imogen Heap–style electric vocal harmonies to create the same feeling of a reverent hymn. As the suddenly acceptable Guitar 101 fingerpicking comes in, Mering sings out the realization she has while distracting herself with her phone that she no longer needs to stay in a bad relationship, and uses those same harmonies in the chorus to actually spell out “Y-O-L-O.” She makes this move almost so serenely that my surprise at hearing the term felt closer to the literal definition of irony (who can keep track anymore?). Regardless, it’s a great turning point in the album, as the songs become less about missing ex-lovers and more about finding personal solidity. This leads into probably my favorite moment, “Seven Words,” where Mering slyly criticizes her lover’s changing of their narrative to lessen the blow of the separation: [“I know you moved on / Telling everyone how I done you so wrong … [sarcastically] / Who am I but a stranger / Who took you down …And now I face tomorrow.”]

For the sake of the theme this month, I want to make the point that Front Row Seat To Earth is really only a dark album on the surface. Yes, Mering seems to express herself from moments of that cruel kind of loneliness born from romantic decay. However, the album is a reminder that heartbreak is only possible if one is willing to love in the first place. Breakups have an odd way of showing you that you’ve now become a bigger vessel for emotional wisdom, and that’s always kind of a riveting but pretty fucked-up experience. Mering knows this. By embracing the kitschy style and mocking the unavoidable transparency of bygone aesthetics, Mering is celebrated for figuring out how to allow herself to be excessively dramatic and give us one big wink at the same time. What’s dark, I think, is that a lot of us prefer to see pain this way. –Nic Smith

Birdie Num Num and the Spirit Squad
Subject to Change
Robot Recordings
Street: 10.14.14
Birdie Num Num and the Spirit Squad = Ty Segall + Pepper Rabbit + The Black Angels

Subject to Change is a slow-paced psychedelic rock album, which contains a sense of angst and despair despite the abundance of groovy instrumentation. Birdie Num Num cover a broad spectrum of influences and tempos that are unexpected as the album moves on. They chose a fitting title. At first, tunes like “The Creek” and “Infinite” don’t necessarily prepare the listener for a psychedelic rock album with their usage of indie sounds like pianos and cooing backing vocals, but it definitely gets there. You’d be hard-pressed to deny the cerebral feeling of the riffs found in later songs like “Everyone Deserves the Same Thing” and “Storm Witch.” If I had to summarize it in one go, Subject to Change sounds like Ty Segall’s hangover (in a good way). Birdie Num Num take their time in this release, and give an almost sobering emotional quality to the psychedelic genre. I’ve got “Lucky Old Sun” on repeat. –Nic Smith


Weird Owl

Weird Owl
Interstellar Skeletal

‘a’ Records
Street: 05.25
Weird Owl = Quest for Fire + Mondo Drag

The Brooklyn-based psych band Weird Owl explore the sounds of psychedelia in the realm of the digital age with their first full-length album in four years. With their slow, spaced-out playing style, Weird Owl create the patient immenseness that’s reminiscent of the late ’70s and ’80s fascination of space and technology. Tracks like “Split from the Sun” and “Fine Vibrations” create wide landscapes of droning bass and primitive synthesizers. However, these tracks are prone to suddenly diving into heavy riffs that inject energy and purpose back into their weightless soundscapes. Other tracks like “God” and “Flying Fortress” are groovy and tend to provoke shoulder-shrugging sways. This record is a nice change of scenery, if you’re in the mood for a cosmic comedown. –Nic Smith