Ok, so maybe last week I was a bit premature thinking the year was looking up. I was having a good day and this week, not so much. It’s fine though because as with everything in life, there are ups and downs, good and bad. We have to roll with the punches though, which is what I’m doing both literal and figuratively.
It’s 2020 and there seems to be an exorbitant number of artists that self-release material that’s extremely well-produced. Without a label and/or financial support from any major institutions, the 4-track studio seems to have been taken out of the bedroom and possibly moved into the living room(?)
Well, take Kid Nobody for instance. The duo of Michael Wilson and Jesse Carmichael, once members of the L.A. synthpop group Wildcat! Wildcat! who released an album and an E.P. back in 2014 & 2013 respectively, had a chance encounter which led them to reconnect musically of a new E.P discretion. The release comes with a number of comparisons, but one thing is for certain, the band reminded me of something I just couldn’t put my finger on. And then, it hit me! The delicate pop tunes seem akin to Death Cab’s first album as vocalist Michael Wilson’s delivery is reminiscent of Ben Gibbard’s on ‘98s Something About Airplanes. But that’s about where it ends because the music Kid Nobody deliver’s is pretty over-the-top and relentless in sweetness (I guess the same could be said of Death Cab.) But here there are four proper songs that are completely infectious, as well as “indiscretion (dream soundtrack),” and at almost 23 minutes in length, the edgy instrumentals compiled together here are interesting and could have been broken into a few actual songs if the duo wished to do so.
I moved on further to the new album by Miss Tess, who by the looks of it, has been at this music thing for some time now with her first album Home released back in 2005. She’s built up a healthy little catalog of albums with The Moon Is An Ashtray her 8th long-player. Now while she may house a variety of styles in her arsenal of sound (folk, blues, jazz, western swing, and vintage rock) I think it’s safe to say that she’s a country gal that likes to step out once in a while on her true love.
On her new album, she’s lining up genres side to side with songs standing tall against one another, from the opening country dirge of “The Truth Is” to that “western” swing of “True Flood” which also features the lovely Rachael Price of the popular Lake Street Dive. But considering there’s still a country feel to the song itself, there’s no clash or true juxtaposition of styles. But the song moves like a slick gunslinger shuffling down the bar. Oh, who am I actually kidding? The album is still rooted in southern hospitality and Tess’ home of Nashville has affected her music in only the best of ways. The title track alone speaks loudly without needing an unnecessary increase in volume with an organ and slide guitar that’s just exquisite. And then you have “If You Don’t Know How To Love Me,” with imagery that’s a full-frontal assault. It surprises me that more people don’t know who she is because her songs are earth-shattering.
And then you have Blockhead, who I’ve always been a fan of since his early collaborations with Aesop Rock. He recently dropped his first beat tape Blockhead’s Broke Beats, which was originally released on vinyl only that dropped back almost 20 years ago(!) Yes, Blockhead has beats for days and now with this digitally released I’m going to rap over every track here utilizing Shakespearian prose throughout. Just kidding of course but I can imagine this launching every up and coming rapper to stardom with a mixtape of perfectly constructed beats. The music still holds up today.
As time passes, artists fall from memories and the attention span of music listeners in this day and age is, well, as fleeting as the seasons. Of course, being part of the masses makes me accountable as part of the problem as well. I was a fan of Matt Pond PA, first stumbling upon the group through a compilation release either on Tree or Polyvinyl Records. That was some time ago.
While A Collection of Bees Part 1 isn’t something new, there are some standout cuts throughout the recording. This Collection is a compilation of early demos and archived tracks spanning from the turn of the century ‘til now. Intriguing because this release is filled with catchy singles. Given, they’re demos, acoustic versions, covers, and such, all refreshingly remixed by the band. Although the band no longer exists, the music they created is worth listening to again and again. But I realize I’m closing things out before I’ve even had a chance to explore anything here. Listening to “Wild Heart 2019” evokes 80s rock styles but with decades edginess to remain topical. This is what I thought before realizing they were covering the Stevie Nicks number that she recorded back in the early 80s. The much more upbeat Matt Pond PA version is much better though.
There is that signature sound they’d mastered of course. The opening “Starlet,” fluttering with acoustic guitars and Matt Pond’s slightly gruff vocal delivery, with sweet harmonies in the background will allow fans to get a different aspect from the original which was obviously much more dynamic with its rhythm section (on The Lives Inside The Lines In Your Hand 2013). The same could be said of “Love To Get Used” (off the same album originally) which is much more stripped-down, adding to its charm.
This compilation, A Collection of Bees Part 1 probably won’t change anyone’s lives but what it will do, at least for me, is allow me to go back and listen to those old albums by the group, filled with creatively crafted songwriting and instrumentation many never dreamed to use. Now, I patiently wait for Part 2.
There are some groups that don’t have the ability, or resilience, to withstand the challenges of change through difficult times. And then there are those that are able to stand tall in the face of adversity. This is how one band has managed to not only face its detractors and naysayers but pass the point of difficulty and thrive.
Nada Surf had its start back in 1996 with the release of its debut album High/Low. During MTV’s heyday, the group almost found immediate success with “Popular,” the catchy number off the Ric Ocasek produced album that found consistent rotation on video network, with guitarist Matthew Caws spoken/sung vocals revolving around high school romance, as bassist Dan Lorca & drummer Ira Elliot holding everything together. The band later found itself within a label-less limbo, taking day jobs while continuing to record music. The band’s persistence paid off though, releasing eight studio albums, an early singles compilation, a b-sides full length, and a number of live releases. Today the New York outfit releases its ninth full-length album, Never Not Together (Barsuk/City Slang) in its almost 30-year existence.
Through the years the band has refined its sound. You’re not going to find any punk/pop anthemic tracks in 2020, instead, you’ll be hit with jangly pop songs that are catchy AF. The band opens with “So Much Love” and while they may not have the punch of their youth, as we all do, the band does shift dynamics, distorting guitars enough to get your attention. Caws guitar work is more controlled here as the band milks the melody for all its worth. And there’s a LOT of change dropping out of pockets here. That’s followed by “Come Get Me” which has more of that jangle I’m fond of, moving at a slower pace but incorporating keyboards to go alongside it as Caws sings pensively about NYC life, lost in his own thoughts. For some reason though, I’m haunted by the ghost of Ocasek and it’s probably that keyboard that allows me to believe musically, this is an ode to the Cars frontman. And then there’s “Live Learn & Forget.” This is where things begin to get really interesting. The song is masterfully written, with loads of melody filled by piano work accentuated by guitars. This right here, it’s a clear example of the perfect pop song.
On this release, Nada Surf will not be denied its rightful place in rock history as “Something I Should Do” is paramountly testament to. Yes, of course I’m making up new words here, but the band is deserving of such after listening to this song. The band eschews the jangle for more distortion and a little bit of dissonance masked around the harmony and keyboards. The band moves seamlessly around the melody that has much to offer. Keyboards are a whisper to the beautiful racket guitars make here. Caws both sings and offers up spoken prose on top of the music. This is a headphone jam we can bounce off the walls to. And then we’re hit with “Looking For You” which is delicately orchestrated with choral vocals, much like how Danger Mouse made a couple of tracks sound on Ghetto Pop Life, but instead of revolving around Hip-Hop, the indie rock swagger is alive and well on this heady little diddy that crescendos like nocturnal emissions.
Where does this release leave Nada Surf? Well, the band has grown tremendously and Never Not Together is proof that its hard work pays off in dividends.
With a decade of releasing material, it just might be time for Fat Tony’s due. Eight albums into his career, this go around for the new album he’s enlisted Los Angeles producer Taydex who he’s worked with in the past. But the Houston rapper Fat Tony is cut from a different ilk, and paired here with Taydex, the sound quite different and refreshing.
Wake Up (Carpark Records) is engaging, refreshing, and nostalgic but at the same time you probably want to hate Fat Tony and you just can’t. While he may fall under the Trap umbrella, there’s more to the rapper than just a singular sub-style. One thing is for certain though Taydex gives Tony the beats he can get funky on. The opening “Get Out My Way (feat. Sophia Pfister)” is pieced together with a thick bassline beneath it as Tony pumps his fists, shouting out his hometown on his way to bigger things. The ethereal aspect of the song allows for a trickle of eeriness when Pfister begins to sing, cooing her words dripping with sensuality. “Godly (feat. Negashi Armada)” is a bit odd, as Tony opens with an off-key cadence where he rhymes Godly with Godfrey and Bocce and I’m surprised he didn’t utilize Degrassi. Taydex lays down a juicy bottom end here while Tony rhymes of struggling from poverty to where he’s at now. But it’s “Big Ego (Sophia Pfister, Dai Burger)” that’s made for the mainstream, with its upbeat guitars, fitted with melody throughout. The absurdity as to how melodic this track comes across as is insane. It’s catchy AF and Dai Burger is a wicked surprise with her high pitched vocal delivery.
Then “Magnifique” crosses directly into trap culture but that’s ok, lilting back and forth as Tony & Taydex become one. The title track is a much more calculated experimental affair as the music begins with a wave of distorted melody as Tony repeats “wake up” before and after he rhymes quickly with thoughtful lyricism revolving around doing the opposite of those around him. But it’s “Cut That” that draws me in. Taydex’s catchy beat is fitted around Tony’s dexterous vocals and I struggle not to hit the repeat over and over to listen to Tony rhyme about former friends.
Fat Tony makes it easy to enjoy his rhyme skills with the patterns he sets, away from the mumble-mouth crowd or one-two word rhymes. And piecing together Wake Up with Taydex is an added bonus.